WASHINGTON – The Marriott Wardman Park hotel here last week was swarming with philosophers.
Women were in the distinct minority -- and as a controversial event, a reception sometimes referred to as "the smoker," was getting started Wednesday night at the American Philosophical Association's Eastern Division meeting, a fair number of women could be seen leaving the hotel. They were generally of an age at which they were more likely to be on search committees than seeking jobs.
Over the years, the reception at the APA eastern conference has functioned as a job fair of sorts, where, over free-flowing booze, candidates talk to potential employers.
For weeks, philosophy blogs had been alive  with discussions  about how women job candidates feel vulnerable  at the reception, how some of them had been hit on as they talked to recruiters, and the sheer awkwardness of trying to navigate job interviews with a beer bottle in hand. While many disciplinary meetings feature departmental receptions, they tend to be for alumni gatherings and outreach as much as anything; the philosophy reception is one event where candidates say they are urged to schmooze simultaneously with hiring committees, random others, and competitors for the jobs they want.
Jennifer Saul, head of the philosophy department at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom, who runs a blog about being a woman in philosophy, said she avoids the reception like the plague. Rebecca Kukla, a philosophy professor at Georgetown University, said she -- and her university -- would not be there either.
But despite the swirling conversations online and the women philosophers who chose not to attend, 86 universities had paid for tables at the reception.
"Free beer," announced a man checking badges at the door when the doors to the cavernous Marriott ballroom opened at 8 p.m. Wednesday.
"Sweet," said a waiting grad student.
The smoker was on. (While the event's official name has not been "the smoker" for years, that remains the way many refer to it.)
Many designated tables remained empty an hour after the event had started. Out in front of the ballroom stood the candidates, making small talk as they eyed other candidates and tried to figure out who was talking to whom. Some wandered aimlessly, bottle in hand.
By 10 p.m., the “interviewing” had begun in earnest. The candidates milled around the circular tables. Some could be seen rushing out, stopping en route to drink a glass of water before exiting the smoker.
Defenders of the smoker have said that it's a pleasant and efficient way for job candidates and hiring committees to mingle -- and that most candidates don't mind. But interviews with those on the candidate side here suggest that most find the situation unpleasant at best, but feel they have no choice but to attend.
A female graduate student said she had heard horror stories about the reception. But she wanted a job, and there was no way she was going to miss an opportunity to network.
“There is a big power divide here,” she said. “The women are younger and many are looking for jobs. The men are more established.”
Men, both young and old, far outnumbered the women at the ballroom, a reflection of the gender imbalance in philosophy, where about 25 percent of faculty members are women.
Another woman, from a Midwestern university, felt that a candidate’s chances might be hurt if she did not show up for the reception. Her voice then dropped to a conspiratorial whisper: “If you have an interview the next day, do not talk to them now.”
When this reporter approached another grad student, she declined to talk. “I just can’t take the risk,” she said.
Amidst this hubbub of anxiety, David Schrader, the executive director of the APA, walked around shaking hands and making conversation.
He pointed to the lights and said “not dim”, referencing a blog post where a pregnant job candidate had complained about the minimal lighting at the smoker.
He said the reception played an important role and enabled colleagues to socialize. “I’m planning on stopping by some of the tables myself, to see how some of my friends are doing,” Schrader said.
He noted the concerns of some women and said there had been informal discussions at the APA. Some had suggested a cash bar instead of free alcohol as a way of tempering bad behavior by making it a bit difficult to drink too much. (A similar reception Thursday evening had a cash bar.)
“There are a few who will misbehave,” he said. “We are not sure if we can do anything about the placement process spilling over to a reception or whether we can ask job candidates not to talk to an institution in a social setting.”
Schrader said there were plenty of female philosophers who were comfortable at the reception and had not raised the issues mentioned in the blogs.
Even so, changes may be in the offing. Jeff Bell, a professor of philosophy at Southeastern Louisiana University, who also contributes to the New Apps blog , said there was a petition circulating at the conference that asked for the smoker to be reformed. “We could even do the first round of interviews on Skype, to make it easier for candidates,” he said.