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.