In preparation for the Women in Public Service Project Institute being held at Bryn Mawr College this summer, I’ve been reaching out to Bryn Mawr alumnae in public service, especially those involved in the project. Below is an interview I conducted with Alice Rivlin for The Undergraduate Initiative:
Alice Rivlin, Bryn Mawr College class of 1952, is an economist who has served as the Vice Chairman of the Federal Reserve, the Director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, the first Director of the Congressional Budget Office and is a confirmed speaker for the Women in Public Service Project Institute to be held at Bryn Mawr College July 7-19.
Questions for Alice Rivlin:
Why did you decide to pursue a career in public service?
I think I always wanted to do some kind of public service. I wasn’t very clear about what that meant, but I grew up in the era right after World War II, I was Bryn Mawr class of ‘52 so not long after the war, and we were pretty idealistic. I was very interested in peace and international relations and at the time I was thinking about careers where I would be doing something international. I majored in economics at Bryn Mawr College and that seemed to be a logical step in doing something in public service. I went to Europe [upon gradation] and worked in the US government agency that was winding up the Marshall plan. After, I decided to go to graduate school still thinking internationally but by the time I got into economics at the graduate level I became more focused on domestic things.
Do you feel that your education at Bryn Mawr College influenced your professional choices?
Oh I think so, but I think I had something of that mindset before coming to Bryn Mawr. The thing that was important was my majoring in economics. I originally started out thinking I wanted to major in history, but then that didn’t seem very practical and then I switched to economics.
What barriers have you faced as a women with a high level career in public service?
Well, that’s a long story in part because I started so long ago. At the time I was beginning my career there were serious barriers that your generation has a hard time focusing on. There were a lot of jobs not open to women and even going to graduate school was something most women didn’t do. Now Bryn Mawr was something of an exception, but professorships at major universities were not open to women, and even when I was at Harvard as a graduate student there was one library not open to women…It’s hard to imagine that you could run a university that way but it wasn’t illegal in those days, it was before the civil rights act and any of the things that came along with it making discrimination illegal.
How did you deal with these barriers?
My generation was just before the protest generation of the 60’s… and in the 50’s we were much more lady like. We just did it. If there were barriers for women getting a PhD, we just went ahead and got it. If one job wasn’t open for women we went for one that was. We were largely very persistent.
Did you have any role models or mentors? If so, who were they and how did they inspire you?
I did and at different stages. My second boss, Joe Pechman, was a very distinguished economist and public policy economist. When I first got my PhD and came to the Brookings Institution in the late 50’s he certainly both influenced me and mentored me. He had two [biological] daughters and I was kind of his third daughter. Although I wasn’t the only woman he mentored; he was very committed to helping young women economists get started.
Do you feel that gender differences affect policy? Can you think of a time when being a woman affected a decision you made?
Gender differences, race differences, and income differences, all of those things play a role in public policy. But I don’t think I made different decisions because I was a women and I sort of consciously stayed away from women’s issues. I didn’t work on women’s rights or pay equality or any of those things particularly. I wanted to be a general-purpose economist.
I understand you have three children. How did you balance your career with your family life? Is there really such a thing as work/life balance for women? If it’s something worth working towards, how do you recommend one does it?
I have three children, now middle aged, and four grandchildren. I think the work life balance is something that everyone struggles with, not just women, but I do think it’s harder for women. The good news is that men are beginning to get conscious of their family responsibilities and worry about those balances as well. And I think that’s a good thing because it’s not just a women’s issue. I was extraordinarily lucky because I had three smart and healthy children who did well in school… I didn’t have a particularly difficult situation and I had enough money to hire someone to help me take care of the kids. But it is hard to balance a career and family life. And I don’t think its gotten much easier: My daughter has children, now two of them college age and one younger, and I don’t think its been any easier for her… it’s a challenge.
What advice would you give to young women interested in pursuing a career in public service?
Go for it! It is really an exciting place to be. There’s so much you can do in public service that’s both intellectually interesting and challenging and makes the world a better place. And I think it’s a good career for women or for anyone. I’ve had an enormously interesting and exciting career over a long period and I would do it again and encourage anyone else to do it.
What made you want to be involved in the Women in Public Service Project?
I’ve been a woman in public service and I like that the project brings together women from around the world. It also may cater to my original interest in international things.
What are you most looking forward to about the Institute?
Getting to know other women in public service from other places.
In your opinion, how can we achieve 50% representation by the year 2050?
More qualified women have got to spend time in public service jobs but if we’re talking about representation in legislative bodies I don’t know what the answer is. We’re a long way from 50% representation in the United States Congress, it’s going to take more women wanting to do it. It’s a hard life being in congress and it brings the work life issues to the floor. So it’s not terribly surprising that we haven’t gotten to 50/50, but state legislatures are getting there, for example New Hampshire and Vermont have very high percentages of women in the legislature.