Contributed by Betsy Bagley, Work-Life Strategy Consultant

Work-Life types from across the country descended on Dallas last month for the first regional forum of the National Dialogue of Workplace Flexibility hosted by the Women’s Bureau, U.S. Department Labor. The four regional forums in Texas, California, Illinois and New York are designed to build on the message and momentum from the March 2010 White House Flexibility Forum.

One of the major themes of the day was that workplace flexibility was a gender-neutral proposition, which begs the question, “Then why was it hosted by the Women’s Bureau?”

In the traditional breadwinner-homemaker family, there were two jobs and two people. Hilda Solis, U.S. Secretary of Labor, shared that she grew up in family whose basic standard of living necessitated the employment of both parents and she saw a different family model develop. Her mother oversaw the management of the household, but the older children were responsible for providing care for younger children while the parents were both at their places of employment. The key issue is that the mother’s primary concern was ensuring that the children were provided for and cared for. This was a three job-two parent household. Ms. Solis, even as a child, wasn’t blinded to the fact that it was her mother that carried the heavier load, managing both employment and the family.

As mothers entered the workforce in greater numbers, the family models were often either two jobs-one parent (single mothers) or three job-two parents (dual earner families). Culture, however, dictated that the childcare was still managed by the mother in most cases, so mothers in the workforce were disadvantaged with the two job-one person role, while most men continued with responsibility for one job. In some cases the men preferred it this way because of their own paradigms, and at other times, even fathers who aspired to more equal domestic relationships, succumbed to workplaces that demanded the primacy of the job, often forcing them to put the family second.

The point is that women will not choose employment options, much less ascend career ladders, if they come at the expense of their families and children. To ensure care for their families, a variety of care options exist, including care from extended family, daycare or nannies, and stay-at-home fathers. In many cases, however, workplace flexibility provides the tools needed to integrate the roles of caregiver and employee.

Across the globe, however, it is obvious that workplace flexibility is not sufficient to move women into higher levels of management; the danger is that higher utilization rates for flexibility by women can reinforce the “mommy track,” and derail career progression. As long as women are working flexibly to manage their dual roles, while men are still focusing on a single role, the playing field is not level. Incentives to encourage men to take leave and access flexibility have proven helpful in breaking down the cultural barriers that keep them at work and women at home.

If women are the “canaries in the coal mine” of the traditional workplace, what does that mean? The canaries aren’t just warning that the mine is a bad place for birds; they are just the first ones to indicate that something is very wrong in the mine, which needs to be addressed. Women are harbingers that the “mine” is no longer a productive, effective workplace for today’s workforce and today’s families.

As Ellen Galinsky of the Families and Work Institute shared from the National Study of the Changing Workforce, young fathers are eager to assume a greater role at home and with parenting. This brings with it great conflict for them, too. At the same time, mothers report an increase in their own levels of ambition.

So why the Women’s Bureau? The 90-year old Women’s Bureau is charged with serving and promoting the interests of working women. A priority for Ms. Solis and the DoL is to improve the lives of working families. These goals can only be achieved through equal access and utilization of workplace flexibility by both men and women in our country. When families are truly sharing the three jobs for two parents, and workplaces offer the tools for managing that interface, both businesses and families will prosper.

Thank you to the White House and the Women’s Bureau for elevating this dialogue to the national level and carrying it to businesses around our country, one region at a time.