An Interview with Alice Rivlin

Hali J. Edison, Board of Governors - Federal Reserve System

Federal Reserve Vice Chair Alice Rivlin speaks with Hali Edison about her experiences as an economist and a policymaker. She offers encouragement to those starting out: "Do something you enjoy and do it well and then don't worry!"

Vice Chair Rivlin (Ph.D.-Radcliffe College 1958) has a held a number of high level posts in the federal government. Before becoming a member of the Federal Reserve Board, Dr. Rivlin served as Director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, she was the founding Director of the Congressional Budget Office, Director of Economic Studies at the Brookings Institution, and Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation at the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. In addition, Dr. Rivlin is the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Prize Fellowship and served as President of the American Economics Association.

Q. Why did you decide to go into economics? Did your professors or friends encourage you in this endeavor or did they try to direct you to another field?

A. I started at Bryn Mawr College intending to major in history, which I found fascinating--still do. Then, rather accidentally, I took first year economics in summer school at Indiana University, just because economics sounded like something one ought to know about. I lucked into a class with a superb young instructor, who got the whole class excited about economic ideas. (This was the late Reuben Zubrow, who subsequently had a long career of distinguished teaching and research at the University of Colorado.) I decided that economics might be more useful than history, so I went back to Bryn Mawr and switched my major to economics. Economics was a small major at women's colleges in those days, so we got a lot of individual attention from the faculty. I wrote my undergraduate honors thesis on the economic integration of Western Europe, which was a pretty prescient topic choice in 1952. I even had a discussion of European monetary union! By then I was sufficiently hooked to be thinking about graduate school, but I went to Europe for a year first, where I had a junior job in Paris working on the Marshall Plan.

Q. What was it like to be a woman graduate student in economics at Harvard University in the 1950's? (In particular, were women treated differently?)

A. Harvard was having a hard time adjusting to the idea of women in the academy. Indeed, since I was already focused on policy, I applied first to the graduate school of public administration (now The Kennedy School), which rejected my application on the explicit grounds that a woman of marriageable age was a "poor risk." I then applied to the economics department, which had about 5 per cent females in the doctoral program. They were just working up their courage to allow women to be teaching fellows and tutors in economics. I taught mixed classes, but initially was assigned only women tutees. One of my tutees wanted to write an honors thesis on the labor movement in Latin America--a subject on which one of my male colleagues had considerable expertise. He was willing to supervise my young woman if I would take one of his young men. However, the boy's senior tutor objected to the switch on the grounds that being tutored by a woman would make a male student feel like a second class citizen. People actually said things like that in those days!

The second year that I taught a section of the introductory economics course, I was expecting a baby in March and did not teach the spring semester. The man who took over my class announced to the class that, since no woman could teach economics adequately, he would start over and the first semester grades would not count. It was an exceptionally bright class and I had given quite a few "A's," so the students were upset. The department chair had to intervene.

In retrospect, the amazing thing was that the women were not more outraged. I think we thought we were lucky to be there at all. Outwitting the system was kind of a game. One of the university libraries was closed to women, and its books could not even be borrowed for a female on inter-library loan. I don't remember being upset. If I needed a book, I just got a male friend to check it out for me.

Q. What prompted you to go into policy work rather than pursue an academic career?

A. I was always interested in policy. In fact, one of the things that attracted me to economics was its importance in improving people's lives. So policy research was a natural for me. Fortuitously, I was offered a research fellowship at the Brookings Institution, which enabled me to finish my dissertation. I spent most of my career alternating between Brookings and various policy jobs in the federal government. Realistically, moreover, academic opportunities were limited for my generation of women graduate students. Most major universities did not hire women in tenure track positions. Early in my career (about 1962), the University of Maryland was looking for an assistant professor in my general area. I was invited by a friend on the faculty to give a seminar and then had an interview with the department chairman. He was effusive in his praise for my work and said how sorry he was that they could not consider me for the position. I asked why not, and he said that the dean had expressly forbidden their considering any women. That wasn't illegal at the time, so we both expressed our regrets, and I left with no hard feelings.

Q. Can you identify a particular person as your mentor? How did he/she influence your career?

A. Guy Orcutt (who was then at Harvard and later at Wisconsin and Yale) was my thesis adviser and played a very important role in encouraging me at an early stage. Later, Joe Pechman at Brookings took me under his wing and helped me learn the policy research business. Joe spent a lot of his time mentoring young scholars. He was very good at it and considered it an important and satisfying part of his job. There were both men and women, but I thought the fact that he had two daughters made him especially responsive to the needs of young women scholars. Alicia Munnell was another of his protegees.

Q. You have held many senior positions in government. What was it like to be the only woman, or one of a few women, in such positions? Do you think you were treated differently in those positions because you were a woman?

A. I never worried much about being the only woman (or one of the few) in the government jobs I held. Sometimes men seemed uncomfortable, but it usually did not last long when they saw that I was competent and not self-conscious about being female. I was more aware of breaking into the boy's clubhouse, when I began serving on corporate boards in the 1980's. Sometimes corporate meetings would go on for a couple of days, with lots of presentations by management, consultants, lawyers, and investment bankers, and the only women besides me were pouring coffee.

The hardest thing for me was learning to speak up in an all male group (strangers, not my own colleagues) without worrying that I might say something dumb or be talking too much. I notice lots of younger women still dealing with this. We tend to be quiet when we are not sure of our ground, while men are much more comfortable trying out ideas they are not sure of.

Q. What are your views about women s progress in economics, in general, in government and at the Federal Reserve, in particular?

A. There has been a lot of progress in accepting women, but the economics profession is still behind law, medicine and many academic disciplines. My lawyer daughter works in a much less male dominated world than I do.

A lot of very competent women have been appointed to high level posts in the federal government in recent years and have made major contributions. President Clinton gets very high marks on gender diversity for his cabinet and sub cabinet appointments. But the senior bureaucracy is still predominantly male. When I came to the Fed in 1996, three of the seven members of the Board of Governors were women, which was remarkable. But there were no women in the highest level staff positions. That's changing, but slowly.

Q. How hard was it for you to balance family and work? Do you think it is getting easier for women to balance work and family? Have the demands at work been increasing?

A. I think it is always hard to balance career ambitions and family responsibilities, both for men and women. Women worry about it more, but men are beginning to worry, too. I had a few bad moments, when my job and my children seemed to be pulling me in opposite directions, but we all survived. Sometimes you just have to make the best choice you can. As my daughter says, "You CAN have it all, but you can't have it all at once." I don't sense that the problem is getting any easier.

Q. Finally, do you have any advice you that would like to offer to women starting their careers?

A. I wish I had some great words of wisdom, but I am afraid I don't. My advice would be: be sure you are doing something you can do well and that you enjoy doing (most of the time, anyway). Then just do it and don't worry too much. You'll do fine.