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Paternity leave survey. More companies offer it, but are fathers taking it?

Fathers of newborns can take time off to be with their babies in over one-third of the companies responding to a recent survey of the top Fortune 1500 .

Conducted by Catalyst - a nonprofit organization that analyzes career and family issues - the survey shows a big jump in the number of companies offering paternity leave over the last four years: A 1980 Catalyst survey of the same type of organizations found only 8.6 percent offering paternity benefits.

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But offering leave time to new fathers and having those fathers take it are two very different issues, cautions Phyllis Silverman, director of Catalyst's Career and Family Programs. ''One of our questions asked: Regardless of the official leave policy, is it reasonable for men to take paternity leave in their company? Sixty-three percent of the men said no,'' she says.

Carol Kirsch, coordinator of programs for working parents at Time Inc., draws on the experience of her company to illustrate this dilemma. Although Time has had a policy since 1983 that allows men to take leave for reasons of paternity, no one has applied so far.

''I hope they will take advantage of it,'' she says. ''It would humanize the corporate world if men were more actively committed to combining work and family in the same way women are.''

Dr. Silverman indicates that in those companies where paternity leave is offered, the few men who take advantage of it tend to take it ''for a week or two only.''

Some feel that such leave-taking is not new - that many fathers of newborns have traditionally taken off a short period of time to ease the family into its role of caretaker to an infant. ''It's almost expected,'' says one man who works with a small firm, ''that when a baby comes along, the father's not going to show up for a few days.''

What's new, Dr. Silverman says, is the feeling among many large corporations that unpaid maternity leave should be extended to include fathers. ''This is an equity issue,'' Dr. Silverman says, which may be caused by the ongoing push for affirmative action and equal rights. But ''the fact that companies are beginning to talk about it,'' Ms. Kirsch says, ''has to open things up.''

''This is a transition time,'' Dr. Silverman says. ''With so many women in the work force of childbearing age, companies are seeing that it's in their best interest to share leave time with fathers.'' Eighty percent of women in the labor force will become pregnant at some point during their work lives, Catalyst notes.

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They theorize that if men and women shared parental leave equally, companies would suffer less from lost work time.

''People take month-long vacations, after all,'' says Ms. Kirsch of Time Inc. ''There are not a lot of people who are totally indispensable, especially for a month.'' Splitting a theoretical three-month parental leave between the two parents, she says, would be comparatively easy for the companies involved.

But she doubts that such splits will become routine ''unless it becomes national policy - unless there's some indication of federal government policy toward families that supports paternity leave.''

Still, Catalyst's Dr. Silverman is ''very optimistic about change in this area'' of paternity leave. ''There's more of a noncrisis mentality about it now, '' she says, ''not, 'Oh my goodness, somebody's not going to be here!' but, 'What systems do we have to manage this?' ''

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