Eman Hammad always wanted to be a professor. But as a 15-year-old born and raised in a Palestinian refugee camp in Jordan who had just lost her mother and was caring for her six younger siblings, she didn’t know what one was, let alone if she would ever achieve her dream.
But Eman proved that dreams can come true. Today, she’s a researcher in cyber-physical security and resilience at PwC Canada. But it’s not her profession or education that defines her — it’s her self image — something Eman thinks people should focus on in terms of who they are. While she has a PhD in electrical and computer engineering from the University of Toronto, a Master’s from Texas A&M University and a Bachelor’s from the University of Jordan, her motivation to get where she is today didn’t come from what title she would have after her name. It came from who she was and is as a person.
When the time came to pursue her chosen career as a scientist, she was at a crossroads: she couldn’t leave her siblings and there wasn’t much money. “People were telling me I should be a teacher, that there was no point for a girl in my situation to study anything else,” she said. “But my father was fully supportive and said to choose whatever I wanted at the local university.”
So Eman chose a field that combined elements of mathematics, physics and science: engineering. During this period, she worked part time and, at home, continued to carry out the household chores and look after her siblings.
In her second year, she specialized in electrical engineering — one of only six women in a cohort of 60. At the time, electrical engineering as a profession was dominated by men, both professionally and academically. Eman took that experience back to her former refugee camp. She participated in career discussions at her United Nations Relief and Works Agency girls school to advise on study options and how to navigate the academic system and the university admission process.
Four children and a PhD
Eman moved to the United States in 2007 when her husband, also an engineer, was admitted to Texas A&M University for his PhD. When their first daughter was just a few months old, she entered graduate school as well. She went on to have three more children while pursuing her research and working part time. Eman completed her PhD dissertation in smart grid cybersecurity and resilience at the University of Toronto in June 2018.
How did she do it? “It’s my belief that you cannot approach life in a sequential manner,” she said. “I didn’t want to build a career and then start a family. For me, life is all of that together. If you have the capability now, the energy, mindset, opportunity and resources, then do what you can. Because you never know what you won’t be able to do in the future.”
Eman learned to take things in bite-sized pieces, and to adapt. “Break the challenge into smaller steps, shorter horizons, keeping in mind the goal that might or might not happen. Because I’ve learned that you cannot plan long term. You can have a plan A, B and C, but you might not use any of them. Resilience is about being flexible.”
It was through her PhD supervisor that she met Sajith (Saj) Nair, who heads PwC Canada’s cybersecurity and privacy practice. “That first conversation was so engaging and insightful. Saj cared about my skill set, what I can bring and what PwC can offer.” She meets with him regularly to discuss her career goals and challenges. “Saj continues to be an excellent model of HeforShe leadership support and always encourages me to use the firm’s flexibility and available resources to maintain a healthy work and family life,” she said. “I often lean on his long-term vision for my career potentials within PwC when I face major decisions and challenges.”
A flexible environment
With four children between the ages of 2 and 10, Eman feels well supported. “In meetings, when I block time off to pick the children up from school, everyone’s fine with that. If I can’t travel certain days, they’ll structure things around my availability. I don’t think people are trying hard to be inclusive, it’s just the way they work.”
She also continues to volunteer, which is how she recharges her batteries. While at the University of Toronto, she volunteered at the Centre for International Experience, working on programming content and mentoring incoming students. Since 2014, she has chaired the Toronto communications chapter of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers.
At PwC Canada, she’s enthusiastic about working on a variety of engagements and different teams. “This is a great place to navigate and grow.” For young people starting out, she emphasizes the need to set your own goals and to think in terms of skill sets, reframing your experience to see how you can use those skill sets to keep moving forward. “Define your own measure of success, and build your path from there.”