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Celebrating Canada's 2SLGBTQI+ Communities

Building A National Mentoring Program For LGBT Professional Women

Groups find that the learning goes both ways…

By Lenore MacAdam

LGBT women are a minority within a minority, and historically have lacked role models for professional development. It is certainly important for women to have a range of mentors based on various professional factors, not just sexual orientation. However, there are unique challenges within our community that are worth exploring, such as coming out at work, defining “business attire” if you don’t conform to traditional gender norms, being a mother in a same-sex partnership, and talking to your manager about taking a parental leave as a woman who did not give birth.

The Pride at Work Canada’s Women’s Committee launched a mentoring program for LGBT women in May 2016. This program is intended to create a space for LGBT women across Canada to learn from each other—to create a professional network for our community.

What have we done so far?
The first cohort, which launched in May 2016, consisted of 15 groups from across Canada. Some groups are all within the same city while some are virtual. Professional backgrounds range, but are primarily within the corporate sector (i.e., banking and professional services firms).

The program was designed to be a fusion of “peer to peer” and the more traditional “one-on-one” mentoring styles. Women were put into groups of four to six, with the groups being designed to contain a range of experience levels, from entry level to those with 20+ years of experience. Our objective wasn’t necessarily to designate formal “mentors” and “mentees,” although we knew that dynamic might emerge at times. We wanted a setting where every group member could learn from each other.

We sent out some guidelines upfront with program objectives and suggestions around initial meeting topics and structure. The program is meant to be 12 months in duration, with groups deciding on the frequency and structure of their meetings.

What have we learned?
Building a national program is an enormous undertaking—more than our committee (all volunteers) probably realized at the beginning. However, it has been a rich learning experience, and it’s one we hope to build on in the future.

The following are a few of our key learnings to date:

The need for structure varies
Some groups have thrived with the amount of structure we provided: They set up agendas, came up with topics for follow-on meetings and have had great discussions. However, others had a harder time. We’ve received feedback that some groups weren’t sure of what to talk about in their meetings, and struggled a bit to get going.

Lesson learned: Clearly we need to be more prescriptive with structure upfront, with the caveat being that groups can always customize or deviate from the structure if they like.

Don’t underestimate how hard it is for people to get together
As of August, a few groups had yet to connect. Email chains went on for weeks trying to set up meetings. It was also summer, so many people were on vacation. It did cause some genuine frustration for some participants.

Lesson learned: Designate a leader to organize the first meeting. (I don’t recommend asking the group to decide on a leader themselves. Just assign the role, and suggest it be a rotating responsibility so that it’s not onerous). Also, give the leader a way to organize the first meeting, such as an online scheduling tool.

Be proactive in searching out potential problems
We sent out an email asking for feedback two months after the program started. I was surprised when some people commented that they hadn’t connected, and disappointed that groups hadn’t reached out sooner. However, in retrospect, I understand why. The participants probably didn’t want to “bother” the organizers, and we hadn’t been proactive enough in reaching out.
Lesson learned: Check in early and often, especially in the first few weeks. It’s much easier to correct course upfront, and participants will feel more supported.
Give direction to online discussion groups
We created a LinkedIn discussion group for the cohort, and initially the participants showed quite a bit of interest in joining this group. However, other than a few introductory comments, the group was rarely used.
Lesson learned: if you’re going to put an online discussion group in place, it makes sense to “curate” the group (e.g., ask targeted questions and give people discussion topics). However, this only works if your organizers have the time. My opinion is that our time would be better spent helping individual teams get organized and moving forward.

This program is filling a need
Despite the challenges, most of the feedback about this program has been extremely positive. Women are excited to have the opportunity to learn—and give back to others in their community. This is the only national mentoring program that focuses specifically on LGBT women, and although we still have a lot to learn, we’re already seeing some successful outcomes.

Going forward
I’m very excited about the potential for this program! The committee plans on launching another cohort in October/November 2016, incorporating all of the lessons that we’ve learned to date.

LENORE MACADAM is the Human Resource Policy Advisor at Deloitte Canada, and the National Chair of the LGBT Employee Resource Group. She is also a board member at Pride at Work Canada, a not-for-profit organization that empowers employers to foster workplace cultures that recognize LGBT employees. For more information, visit

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