A native Nova Scotian, Gallivan started her academic career at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish. Drawn to the analytical nature of calculus, she started out as a math major but soon felt that she would be unable to endure the tedium of mathematics as part of a lifelong career. Instead, Gallivan tried her hand at psychology, in part because it had some of the analytical components she loved such as computers and statistics.Joanne Gallivan describes herself as a late bloomer when it came to identifying as a feminist. A student of the psychology of learning, Gallivan remained unaffected by discrimination until an interview experience opened her eyes to the inequality between the sexes.
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