NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
Think about all the new dads you've known. How much time did they take off from work when their kids arrived?
Some probably took a couple of days. Others may have taken off a week, even two. But how many new fathers take off even half the time from work as the mothers of their children do?
At the very least, many mothers who work full-time often have the option of taking eight to 10 weeks with partial pay, thanks to a combination of short-term disability insurance and corporate policy.
Companies offering paid leave to new fathers, however, are still the exception rather than the rule. According to a survey of its members, the Society for Human Resources Management found that 14 percent of companies offered paid paternity leave.
Just how much is not known. Even among big companies that offer it, the number of days can vary widely. Microsoft, for instance, offers 4 weeks of paid leave; Merrill Lynch offers one week.
Even when there's no formal policy in place, some sympathetic bosses try to be flexible about giving new dads days off here and there. But that's a little like slipping someone money under the table: the recipients appreciate it, but it's not legitimate.
Men don't use all their options
Men do have an option to take paternity leave, albeit an unpaid one. Under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA), male and female employees are entitled to take 12 weeks of unpaid, job-guaranteed leave for childbirth, adoption and foster-care placement (in addition to other reasons). But men rarely use FMLA, experts say.
"Many guys just work it out informally," said James Levine, author of "Working Fathers: New Strategies for Balancing Work and Family." Mr. Levine is also the founder of the Fatherhood Project, a national research and education project at the Families and Work Institute.
There are at least two reasons for men's reluctance. The first is money. According to a 2000 survey by the Department of Labor, the No. 1 reason employees -- both male and female -- say they don't take leave under FMLA is because they can't afford to do so. But in instances when companies pay for paternity leave, according to Levine, men are more likely to exercise their rights.
Another factor is fear. A lot of men, experts say, are still concerned that taking extended leave will jeopardize their career. In the DOL survey, 42.6 percent of those who needed to take leave but didn't cited a concern that their job advancement might be hurt and 31.0 percent feared they might lose their jobs.
The benefits of paid leave
If more companies were to institute policies of paid paternity leave there would likely be benefits for both employer and employee.
For one thing, employees who receive some pay for family leave may be more likely to stay at their jobs.
The California legislature recently extended the state's disability insurance program to cover all employees who take leave to care for a newborn or newly adopted child. Economists found that Californian companies would save $89 million due to increased employee retention and decreased turnover.
For fathers and their families, the dividends are clear. If paid paternity leave were more common, men wouldn't have to choose between the role of caretaker and provider. They would get time to bond with their children while supporting their families financially and emotionally at a critical time of transition.
By offering paid paternity leave, a company is also sending the signal that such time off is legitimate. That may reduce any stigma -- real or perceived -- that discourages men from taking the leave they'd like.
Employers fear "if you give an inch they'll take a mile," Levine said. But survey data and focus group research show "the opposite is true: you give an inch, they give you a mile," he added. "We've got a generation of employees now for whom fatherhood is very significant. If you can respond to a person's values, they'll give you more back."
Leave can be flexible
Levine suggests men explore all their leave options rather than simply assume they'll have to burn up vacation and sick days.
His advice: Know what your company's policies are. Know what your state's policies are. Understand what rights you have under FMLA. And ask for what you want even if there aren't policies in place because if you don't ask you won't get.
Whether you're able to negotiate paid or unpaid leave, don't think you need to take it all in the first month of your child's life. Since often a lot of family may be around lending emotional and physical support at that time, you may want to break up your leave, saving some for later. Or you might want to take a day a week, Levine suggested.
"Many men don't understand they can take leave flexibly. They think it's going to be a big interruption at work," he noted. But, he added, "We're finding they're less often right than they think they are. It's more perception than reality."
Jeanne Sahadi writes about personal finance for CNN/Money. She also appears regularly on CNNfn's "Your Money," which airs weeknights at 5 p.m. For comments on this column or suggestions for future ones, please e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.