There seem to be professors who hold beliefs such as:

  • Women students pose a special risk to male supervisors
  • Certain ethnic groups are smarter/lazier/harder-working than others
  • Older students are worse investments than younger students
  • Students with disabilities are less capable/more trouble than nondisabled students

No student should be saddled with negative prejudices from their supervisor. But how can this be prevented?

The big problem is that bigots are often hard to identify early on. They think of themselves as just being honest and realistic. Asking their current students might not help, because if they don't belong to a marginalized group, they will often only notice other characteristics, such as that the supervisor is nice and explains things well. Unfortunately, it's possible to be a very nice guy and also a horrible bigot.

There's also a corrosive secondary bigotry where the bigot insists that they themselves aren't bigots, but other people are, so good opportunities would be wasted on the marginalized student.

How can a prospective student identify these people and avoid them?

Note: There are very strange answers and comments here. I just want to know how a student can find out if supervisor might hurt a student because of hidden bigoted beliefs. Especially if the student does not have a lot of time to get to know the supervisor, for example when choosing a graduate program. I hope this is clearer.

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    I don't get the close-votes so far. How is this question "primarily opinion-based" or "too broad"? The OP is asking for specific advice about a specific situation. Mar 29, 2019 at 20:51
  • 46
    @ElizabethHenning I disagree about "specific advice". The question has nothing to do with academia IMO. Effectively it is just "how can I identify people don't share my view of the way things ought to be?" which is way to broad for any SE stack. And it doesn't even make sense - if a student is in a group that a supervisor thinks is smarter/a better investment/less trouble than others, why would that student want to avoid that supervisor - unless the student cares more about moral principles than about actually getting educated?
    – alephzero
    Mar 29, 2019 at 23:37
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    @alephzero What an terrible comment. The OP asked about avoiding people that hold prejudicial views (not people that have casual disagreements about university politics or whatever), probably because they don't want to be victimized by them. Why do you assume the OP "is in a group a supervisor thinks is smarter"? || I would hope anyone would refuse to work with someone who openly thinks of some races as lazy. Mar 29, 2019 at 23:45
  • Answers in comments and the discussion about whether one should avoid bigoted supervisors in the first place have been moved to chat. Please read this FAQ before posting another comment.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Mar 31, 2019 at 7:10

11 Answers 11


I recently heard that a good question to ask is “What do you think that others [perhaps other scientists] think about ...” The idea is that most bigots think their bigotry is pretty normal and their beliefs are widely held in secret. So they might tell you that “other people” think X and you can update your beliefs accordingly, unless they follow this up with a convincing argument about why they think most people are wrong. This method is certainly not conclusive, but it can provide a way to start a conversation or a give a bit of extra evidence one way or the other.

  • 24
    I think this is a good suggestion, but I'd be a bit wary of interpreting it on its own. For example, the first draft of the OP said many professors have bigoted beliefs. By the method you suggest, that might suggest OP is bigoted because they seem to think bigotry is common. I do think this is a good way to start a conversation, though, and from that conversation hopefully something can be learned about their leanings.
    – Bryan Krause
    Mar 29, 2019 at 17:51
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    You are right @BryanKrause, I will tone this down.
    – Dawn
    Mar 29, 2019 at 17:59

I will sound snarky with this answer, but have you tried talking to them?

Your question may ask well be asked as "How do I determine the values of another human being before I meet them?" And I would say that is not something you can truly learn and understand until you talk with them.

You may respond with, 'What if they lie?' And that's a very valid point. But I would tell you that all of human social interaction is this very problem, and that you will not gain the wisdom of how to interact with humans without interacting with them!

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    Talk with them and say what? "Are you a bigot?"
    – user106152
    Mar 29, 2019 at 17:14
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    Maybe not that directly :-). You could ask about their value system. Maybe how they feel about certain social issues in academia. And finally, understand that we're not robots - humans can be very hard to get along with; and I say this as a happily married individual.
    – ender.qa
    Mar 29, 2019 at 17:19
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    @user106152 It's not a perfect solution, but you should consider the very real possibility that your question does not have a perfect solution.
    – Clay07g
    Mar 30, 2019 at 0:59
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    From a scientific point of view, you gather the data ("talk to them") then draw a conclusion based on the data. The OP is trying to skip the data gathering, which won't work well, as you correctly point out. Mar 30, 2019 at 9:41
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    @StephenG Not at all. The question is exactly about how to gather the data.
    – user106152
    Mar 30, 2019 at 16:03

How can a prospective student identify these people and avoid them?

You are playing a very dangerous game here. Are you going to make your little test public? If yes, won't the bigots quickly learn how to game it and intentionally avoid detection (as they apparently are doing now according to the premise of your question)? But I am actually more concerned about the opposite option, that you will apply a secret purity test and brand people as bigots or not according to your own private criteria. This can lead to two sorts of problems:

  • False negatives. Some people (maybe the more clever or sophisticated among the bigots) will still figure out what your game is and manage to avoid being detected. You're back to where you are now, except with more of an (incorrect) expectation that you know who's a bigot and who's not. Not so good.

... and then there's the much worse:

  • False positives: your private test (that I assume you intend to share with a select group of people who will be the "users" of the test's results) will invariably "flag" some people as bigots who are just... normal people.* Of course, those people will not know that they have been flagged or why, and will have no means to defend themselves. You will damage their careers, probably their reputations, and at the end of the day, what will you achieve? You have denied someone who is likely a perfectly good advisor and mentor to the students who need one, who are exactly the people you are trying to benefit.

* I personally know two well-respected male academics who were recently accused of sexist behavior by women at their universities, leading to both men suffering a great amount of anxiety and fear of career damage before having their name cleared after pointless (and very stupidly handled) investigations by their university administrations. I have heard first-hand descriptions of both incidents (which occurred independently to two people who don't even know each other) and am 99% confident that they were blown completely out of proportion. So if you think these sorts of mistakes don't happen, think again.

To summarize: the idea that you can somehow figure out a way to look deep into people's hearts and decide if they are good or bad according to some value system is appealing in its simplicity. But we've been there before. For your own and others' sake, my suggestion is: don't.

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    None of which has anything to do with the question I asked. But your answer is nonetheless very instructive in ways that you probably didn't intend.
    – user106152
    Mar 30, 2019 at 5:01
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    @user106152 this answer is a word of warning, trying to make you aware of the possibility that your whole approach toward this issue might be flawed. Refusing to even consider theses points and instead responding with juvenile spite seems very unwise to me.
    – user159517
    Mar 30, 2019 at 9:38
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    -1 What on earth makes you think the OP's question is about ideological purity tests and university investigations? And how is your story about the "suffering" of men accused of sexism remotely relevant? The Wikipedia link to McCarthyism is especially rich. You obviously to have an axe to grind and are using this question as an opportunity to grind it. Mar 30, 2019 at 18:18
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    I wouldn’t care to speculate on what the Asker is talking about, but one thing that stood out to me in this answer was the “much much worse” comment. How I interpret this is that one student gaining a supervisor who is bigoted toward them and may sabotage their entire career is a very minor concern compared to a well-established professor losing out on one potential student. If that was the intended meaning then I feel you need to re-evaluate which of those situations is more damaging. A student not asking someone to be their supervisor is not the same as that student publicly accusing them.
    – Jeff
    Mar 30, 2019 at 21:40
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    @ElizabethHenning according to my reading of it, this answer is about the dangers of the idea that you can divide the world into "good" and "bad" people, and OP is asking for advice on how to do that (clearly, for OP the bad people are "bigots"). The McCarthy era is especially relevant here because back then, the discrimination was based on ideology, and to me it seems that discriminating for ideological reasons is precisely what the OP will end up doing if she pursues this idea.
    – user159517
    Mar 31, 2019 at 10:37

I think that in all but the most blatant cases it is very hard to do. But there are a few suggestions that might get you started.

First, note that some of the offenders don't leave tracks that can be followed. A person could, for example, be anti-Semitic and not advertise it, but just find subtle ways to disadvantage Jewish students. There is probably much more of that sort of under the radar sort of bigotry than the more open kind in academia, since it is generally sanctioned when found out.

But, students know, or suspect, at least, that they aren't being treated fairly, even if they have no effective way to complain about it or correct it. So, talking to other students in an informal setting is a good way to learn the scuttlebutt. "What do you think about Prof Buffy? Is he just goofy or a real problem?" If you have a specific concern talk to students who might share that concern.

But, there may also be some record of past misbehavior, either official or otherwise. Disciplinary action may be in the public record (or not). Even a web site like RateMyProfessor is a source of (not well vetted) information that might make you think again about an individual.

It is very difficult, of course, to expel bigots from the profession. Often the actions don't rise to the level that permits a tenured person to be fired. While the difficulty of forcing expulsion is intended, it has some bad side effects. The blatant cases, such as Robert Moore and William Shockley are well known and instructive. Brilliant in their fields, castigated for their social views, but never expelled from their professions. These are the easy cases, since they are very public. But most bigotry thrives in darkness.

I just came across a book on implicit bias that might give background: Uncovering Hidden Prejudice


Q: How to avoid supervisors with prejudiced views?

A: You can't. However, you can get to know a potential supervisor, find out if he/she hates Jews/Blacks/Irishmen/Arabs/etc. and then evaluate the likelihood that those prejudices will affect the relationship between you and your potential supervisor.

People usually don't come out and show how bigoted they are at first. There are exceptions, of course. I went on a coffee date with a woman who within the first five minutes had made the following unsolicited remarks:-

  • She's very pro-Palestinian (because I'm Jewish, you see, which means she feels the need to talk about Israel)

  • I look like a middle-aged Jew with Down Syndrome (spoiler alert: she was two-thirds correct)

  • I wear my yarmulke for attention, not to show humility before God (actually, I wear it to show solidarity for the Jews who daren't wear it in public)

Oh, and she was a college professor. Yeah.

So, to answer your question: (1) get to know the person; (2) evaluate their bigotry or lack thereof; (3) figure out if it'll affect your ability to work together.

...And no, this isn't a 'purity test'. There's right, wrong, and a continuum in between. Bigotry, like personal hygiene, varies from person to person and from day to day. We all stink sometimes, but some of us are worse than others and some definitely aren't cut out to supervise anyone.


See if you have good rapport with them

I suggest talking -- especially about the field's subject matter -- and seeing how the discussions go. If you come out of the discussion feeling like you can work with the person, it's probably OK. If you don't, you may not know why, but you will suspect that this person isn't a good fit for you. And one discussion isn't enough -- this is a big decisions and it's appropriate to spend some time makeing it. If you can, take a class that the professor teaches and make use of office hours.

(I was in my graduate department for well over a year before I chose my advisor. I understand that in some fields, and some departments, students are expected to choose earlier. So this may not apply.)

For example, with one professor I remember talking to, I always came out of our discussions feeling stupid. It wasn't, as far as I'm aware, any form of prejudice. I think it was just a matter of his style of explaining and my response to it. He would have been a poor fit for me.

  • This is sensible, but what if you have a specific field in mind and you are trying to decide among grad programs? How can you avoid ending up with a supervisor who shortchanges you because of their biases?
    – user106152
    Mar 30, 2019 at 16:11
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    Your advice sounds a little like you are trivializing discrimination as being a matter of style and fit. It's a pragmatic approach, but I think a distinction needs to be made. Mar 30, 2019 at 18:14

"It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it." --- Aristotle.

There seem to be professors who hold beliefs such as [...list of beliefs I don't like]. No student should be saddled with negative prejudices from their supervisor. But how can this be prevented?

One of the things you should be very careful of, especially when you are beginning your tertiary education, is to avoid coming into that educational environment with views that are so rigid that they leave no room for consideration of theories and evidence pertaining to those ideas. In your question you set out a list of beliefs you don't like (many of which are empirical claims, and some of which are almost certainly true) and you then blithely declare that all these claims are mere "negative prejudices" held by "bigots". At a holistic level, your question is essentially asking how you can go through your higher-education without having to encounter beliefs that you don't like (on the purported basis that people holding those beliefs might harm you or others in some way).

This is going to cause problems for you in terms of seeking an education to train you to think more clearly, and to be able to entertain ideas with which you disagree. In each of the cases you list, there is a claim made, which can be analysed by applicable theory and empirical evidence. Unfortunately, you don't seem to be at all interested in doing that, and you are instead seeking advice on how to prevent these ideas being believed at all. At best, this attitude is likely to hinder your ability to learn how to analyse a claim for something you disagree with, and you will need to work hard to be able to approach these claims with an analytical mindset. At worst, it will make you uneducable --- you will attend an institution of higher learning, but your rigid attitude will prevent you from engaging with contrary ideas in an analytical way.

  • Women students pose a special risk to male supervisors

Whether or not this claim is true really depends on what you mean by a "special risk". It is unlikely that there is a distinct category of risk that applies only in this particular case, but it is at least arguable that there are some risks that are magnified when a male supervisor supervises a female student. As you are no doubt aware, most people in society are heterosexual, and male heterosexuals are empirically more likely than female heterosexuals to engage in sexual harassment of subordinates, and their behaviours are probably also more likely to be perceived as harassment under similar circumstances. (I could be wrong about this, but it is at least arguable on good faith.) Thus, it is certainly arguable that, ceteris paribus, the risk of sexual harassment increases when a male supervisor supervises a female student, as does the corresponding risk of a false claim. Ultimately, a claim of higher/special risk needs to be assessed against empirical evidence of outcomes in different supervisory relationships. It is foolish to rule this out as a mere "prejudice" in the absence of some attempt to engage the claim.

  • Older students are worse investments than younger students

There is a very strong argument that this claim is true. If students are to be considered as an "investment" at all, then that must presumably mean that they will generate some future benefits (e.g., for society) and their "value" as an "investment" depends on the frequency and magnitude of those future benefits. In economic theory, the value of an investment is determined by some calculation of the "expected net present-value" of the stream of future benefits from the investment. Ceteris paribus, a student with more remaining life is likely to give a longer stream of future benefits, and is thus a higher-value "investment" than a student who has less remaining life. It follows that, ceteris paribus, a younger student is a more valuable "investment" than an older student operating at the same level.

I'm sure there are probably some reasonable arguments against this view, but the point is that you would need to actually listen to these competing arguments and evaluate their merits to decide on the truth of the claim. In view of the strength of the supporting argument for this claim (it is virtually a logical consequence of the economic definition of expected present-value, plus the fact that younger people have higher remaining life-expectancy), it is hard to see how this claim can reasonably be characterised as a "prejudice" held only by "bigots".

  • Certain ethnic groups are smarter/lazier/harder-working than others

This is an empirical claim, and the only way to resolve it in a robust way would be to look at data on those characteristics (measured somehow) for a range of people in different ethnic groups. There is a mountain of empirical literature on IQ, etc., and this literature consistently shows differences among race/ethnic groups. Studies on levels of leisure-time and physical inactivity give more mixed evidence, but there are usually differences among race groups found in individual studies. Whether or not those various differences are "nature or nurture", and whether or not they are likely to remain over time, etc., are controversial topics on which much academic literature has been written.

There are probably all sorts of nuanced and reasonable scientific views one could hold on this topic. Many academics argue either that the measures of intelligence, etc., are flawed, or that the empirical results of difference groups are likely to converge over time, or make other claims. Others do indeed hold that there are differences in these characteristics rooted in genetic causes. The particular claim you mention is a pure empirical claim (i.e., a descriptive non-causal claim) and can be assessed directly by data on the present population. In view of the fact that this is an empirical claim, beliefs about the claim by academics are likely to be influenced by empirical data, or at least anecdotal observation, and it is thus unlikely that the claim would mere be a "prejudice". If you have a look at the academic literature on race/ethnic differences in various positive characteristics like intelligence, diligence, etc., you will see that there are a range of views and a lot of study and data that can be used to elucidate the topic.

  • Students with disabilities are less capable/more trouble than nondisabled students

A dis-ability is literally an incapacity --- i.e., something that makes someone less capable of doing something. Thus, the claim that a person with a disability is less capable (somehow) is a tautology, taking the concept of "disability" and replacing it with its synonym "incapacity". Now, obviously any given disability gives a particular set of incapacities, and those limited incapacities do not necessarily imply any broader lack of capability beyond the specifics of the disability. As to what particular incapacities or "trouble" that would imply, it would depend on the nature of the disability.

It should go without saying that a university should try its best to accommodate student disabilities, and supervisors should be willing to go to some "trouble" to assist people with disabilities to the extent that this is reasonably required. Nevertheless, with respect, treating the above claim as a "prejudice" held only by "bigots" is really quite idiotic. It is a claim that is virtually a tautology, and any denial of the claim would render the concept of "disability" meaningless.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – eykanal
    Apr 3, 2019 at 0:45

In addition to interpersonal interactions, for an established person you can also make a reasonable guess based on looking up their prior advisees.

  • Are the advisees at least as diverse (or more) than the field as a whole? Professors with explicit or implicit prejudice are likely to embrace either majority/privileged students or students who belong to the same groups as themselves.
  • Do the post-graduation careers of some classes of advisees show significant disadvantage compared to others? A professor who is prejudices towards some of their students may still effectively graduate them, but nonetheless still damage their careers.

This type of analysis won't necessarily find people with specific prejudices, since the sample size will often be too low, but it can give a good hint as to whether you're dealing with somebody who is able to be respectful of diverse backgrounds and needs ... or not.

  • @Servaes Not for gender or disability or age or pretty much anything except for nationality and ethnicity --- and even then, there's decent mixing at the Ph.D. level.
    – jakebeal
    Apr 1, 2019 at 14:34

I'm an old white man, non-neurotypical, raised in a poverty that is unimaginable to the average person. I have worked since I was 16, and I have had many different kinds of jobs. I might be reasonably qualified to answer this question.

The question should be defined. I've been on the receiving end of .. badness. The world is full of it. I think it could be said that there is no person alive such that if they were made absolute rule of planet earthy, they would not turn into a tyrant and make hell of earth. This means that I'm not going to answer "how to detect and avoid only anti-woman bigotry". I would call it abuse, not bigotry. I don't think perfectly hidden bigotry is the problem, if they keep their demons 100% in check then who cares? I think when that bigotry works its way out into words and actions, at which point it isn't a statement about the kind of person they are on the inside, but what they act on the outside. Every court of law says something to the effect "you can't measure the inner workings of the mind". It is an imperfect information problem. You can't know everything. There is always risk, you can't set it to zero, but you can find the lowest place it can go and set it there. The question that I am going to answer, the one I think is "the question behind your question" is what are the indicators of mistreatment, and how can I minimize my risk of being mistreated.

This has already been answered, and many people know the answer: the best indicator of future performance is past performance.

As I tell my daughters: A boy can lie to you and pretend to be anything for about 3 months; and you can give your heart away but you can't take it back. Do not trust his words alone. Instead look at his words, and actions, over time. Make it at least 6 months of time, and more like 15 months before you put yourself in a place where your heart will start to give itself away. Watch carefully how he treats those that he has no onus to take care of, those who are worth nearly nothing to him. If he treats them poorly, then he is a tyrant, petty at best, but not one worthy of your you.

One reprobate of a (male) professor that I once knew, created a fake online profile of a woman, with whom he "pursued" a competitor, and won the other guys heart, then broke it. That was the work of a pile of crap, not an honorable man competing fairly on the basis of competence. Anyone who ever wants to know that professors integrity just has to look into his past to find this. It shows how petty, back-stabbing, and unprofessional that person is willing to be.

While I was considering who to have as an advisor in college, I asked those who were under the various professors what it was like. I asked the secretaries and admins, folks who had been there for years, who "knew the dirt" if it was a bad match for me to work under professor x. I didn't say "find me an advisor" which would be stupid, and I didn't ask about everyone. I pre-selected perhaps five, and asked them what they thought of "x as an advisor for my graduate program, should I try knocking on that door". One guy wouldn't let his overseas national students out of work-hours to go to their own fathers funeral. One guy didn't really do any work, and the other faculty knew it so they wouldn't support him - he was on his way out.

There are places like "rate your professor". There are current grad students who can tell you what their experience was like. The rule is "if someone is known as being bad to some of their students and you become their student, they are more likely to be bad to you".

Contact their former students, ones that have moved on into other greater pastures. They tend to tell it like it is and not put theory over reality.

These are places and methods you can use, to reduce (but not to zero) the risk of having a bad personality match, or getting yourself of being under someone who treats people badly.

I think that you need to use this and only this. I think people might look scary, but if this method says they are great then be open to it. Don't judge a book by its cover. I know some folks who are scared of professors who belong to a religion, but 80% of engineers are religious. If they take 80% of people off the table because of a label, without taking a little time to evaluate the merit of their deeds, and their consistent treatment of others, then perhaps they might miss out on having a very great, very valuable experience.

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    Every court of law says something to the effect "you can't measure the inner workings of the mind". This point really needs to be highlighted and is similar to the point I was going make as well. The whole point of research into things like implicit bais is that everyone has some sort of default bias (usually culturally informed). So you really can't avoid working with someone that has prejudiced views. However, if they keep those views in check and are equitable in their treatment of other's its also kind of a non-issue.
    – anonymous
    Mar 31, 2019 at 23:29
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    @anonymous I don't think a bigot is just if you have biases. It's also if you think the biases are justified and rational and you make decisions on the biases.
    – user106152
    Apr 1, 2019 at 0:19
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    "rate your professor" sites are pretty much rubbish, because they have no significant moderation. They're about the level of YouTube comments: there's some signal there, but it's usually buried in noise from individuals with grievances or agendas.
    – jakebeal
    Apr 1, 2019 at 1:41
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    @user106152 Then perhaps is your question is "How do I avoid bigots?" as opposed "How to avoid supervisors with prejudiced views?" Everyone holds prejudiced views of some degree of severity and it's more or less intrinsic to how we think about the world. You have to process a lot of information each day all the time so biases, prejudices, etc. are just part of how you process that information. Basically, trying to avoid people on the basis of how they think is futile, trying to avoid people on the basis of how they act is significantly easier.
    – anonymous
    Apr 1, 2019 at 3:07
  • @jakebeal - some data is better than no data. I find the particular comments to be more informative than general ratings. Getting insight out of data is not always straightforward. Talking with several of their grad students directly however is much more information rich. Apr 2, 2019 at 1:16

One thing you can do is talk to their current or former students and look at their record with former students. If someone has a strong track record successfully advising students from underrepresented groups that's a very important piece of information.

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    This criterion will give many false positives. Maybe someone has never successfuly advised a student from underrepresented group X, simply because, well, group X is underrepresented. Mar 31, 2019 at 20:58
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    You're right, it's far from perfect, but I also think it's simple and useful. Mar 31, 2019 at 22:37
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    This is a good answer because it addresses the question succinctly and without judging the OP's preferences when selecting a supervisor. Furthermore, this is just good advice in general. Talking to previous students is something that all students should do when vetting a potential supervisor. Apr 1, 2019 at 15:21

All the other answers offer good advice, I only have one little contribution. Currently, many departments and grants, require PI's to make or sign statements on inclusivity, or even have a plan for how to ensure equal opportunities. This might be posted on departmental or lab websites, and either way, when approaching a PI, framing it as "how do you ensure equal opportunities for X, Y & Z" should be a familiar question to the PI, so they know how to answer. You can then gauge their answer to determine how you feel about working in their lab. For example, they might reply that they never needed it, which good be either good or bad (depends on the field, their own background and who you see in their lab).

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