Employees and government should work together to increase the number of women in STEM


University of Waterloo Dean of Engineering Dr. Pearl Sullivan dreamt of being an air stewardess when she grew up in Malaysia because she wanted to see and travel the world but she realized that she didn’t reach the height requirement to be an air stewardess. However, she was good at and fascinated by math and science in school, which is when she decided to pursue those subjects. She knew that her parents would encourage her to enter medical fields. But being squirmish with blood, she felt medical fields were not suitable for her.

She moved to Canada about the age of 18 and took up engineering to help society. She became even more interested in engineering after reading about infrastructure in a civil engineering magazine in her university’s library. Upon being accepted into an engineering program, she found she was naturally good at material science. She went on to complete her Master’s and Doctoral degrees in engineering. She was one of the first student researchers for composition engineering who researched replacing aluminum structures with carbon fiber plastics in aircrafts. She stresses that it’s not geeky or nerdy to be an engineer. “It’s actually really cool to be an engineer.”

She didn’t face any barriers upon entering engineering. When she got her first engineering teaching job, there were about 160 professors, only two of whom were female. So, Dr. Sullivan only had one female colleague. Yet, all the men, like the men when she was in school, were always encouraging, supportive, and helpful. Also, she never had to worry about lunch when she started teaching because her colleagues always invited her.

Dr. Sullivan wants young girls to know that engineering is an excellent base degree no matter what field you want to enter. An engineering degree provides greater options because it allows you to understand how things work. A Bachelor’s Degree in engineering is useful for any job from management to design. It also provides women a great level of independence. The income for women with engineering degrees allows them to have financial independence.

To her, the key to success is doing something that interests you. People have many interests and fulfillment of both personal and professional interests is how she believes people truly feel successful. She feels very honored and privileged to be where she is today and to be able to help all the students in her engineering program, even though she’s unable to talk to each student individually.

Both men and women struggle alike in the first year of the engineering program because the program’s demandingness requires time-management. Once female students in the engineering program understand that their intellectual capabilities are not in question, they realize that their struggles are not internalized. It’s not that they’re female; it’s simply the program. About ten years ago, less than 15% of first-year engineering students were female. Now, that number is up to about 29%. University of Waterloo’s engineering program has the largest enrollment of women in Canada. University of Waterloo also has a summer day camp called Engineering Science Quest for ages six to fourteen to help better educate kids and teens about science.

Dr. Sullivan loves to keep her style simple but classic. She describes her fashion as neat, smart, and appropriate for the occasion. She keeps her outfits simple to not waste time. And although she doesn’t like too much jewelry, she loves earrings and, staying true to her name, she likes to wear a pearl necklace. Her lifehack is knowing when to delegate and when to keep a task for herself. Dr. Sullivan has learned over the years how to manage up, how to manage down, and how to manage across. Her go-to skincare products include an Olay cleanser, Estee Lauder cream, and Bare Minerals powder.

The legacy she wants to leave behind is that she helped her colleagues and made a difference every day. She hopes that she has impacted everyone - colleagues and students alike - in a positive way. All the help and encouragement that she has received over the years, she wants to pay it forward. She is grateful for her blessings and encourages others to be grateful.