Marc Carlson pushes his daughter in her bike as his wife, Dr. Diana Carlson, makes her way to the car and on to work. Marc, a senior manager at Ernst & Young, took advantage of his company's six week paid parental leave when his daughter Rebecca was born. He later took four weeks off when Diana went back to work the following August. (Photo by James Fassinger/For the Washington Post)

In early May, a group of about 20 Twitter employees gathered in a conference room at the company’s New York offices to swap stories about becoming new parents. They shared strategies for prepping to go out on leave for nearly three months. They lamented their loss of sleep. They traded ideas for limiting email intrusions after the baby arrives and cutting back on travel once they head back to work. (Pro tip: take the redeye flight if you don’t want to miss bedtime.)

The employees in the room weren’t working mothers. They were all fathers, or soon-to-be fathers, attending the social media company’s second “Dads on Leave” roundtable. Twitter hosted the first event late last year to help encourage men to take the company’s 10-week paid paternity leave.

“It was enormously valuable and reassuring to know that this leave isn’t just a front,” said Jason Toff, the general manager for Twitter’s Vine business, who attended the roundtable. He plans to split his time off in two, taking five weeks when his first child is born in July and the other five later this year, likely around the holidays. “They explicitly encouraged us to take the leave and [said] don’t worry.”

But for many men, such corporate nudging is rare — which makes taking advantage of paternity leave still something of a leap of faith. “In most settings there’s still a stigma,” said Stewart Friedman, a professor at Wharton who studies work-life issues. “You’re penalized in subtle ways if you take time away.”

Recent research has shown that men who request family leave are more likely to be seen as weak and uncertain, and less likely to be recommended for pay raises or promotions.

That may change, however, as more companies promote the policies they have or even introduce more generous ones. Richard Branson announced last week that a small subsection of his employees at Virgin — those working for his company's investment and brand licensing arm, Virgin Management — would have access to a year of paid paternity leave if they meet certain criteria.

Other companies have expanded their paid leaves as well, if in less extreme ways. Twitter enhanced its leave for fathers in 2013 from six weeks to 10. In May, Johnson & Johnson announced that fathers would now get nine weeks of paid parental leave, up from the only one week they had before. And just this month, Goldman Sachs doubled its paid leave for "non-primary caregivers" from two weeks to four.

What's behind the budding generosity? For some employers, it's an effort to be more inclusive for same-sex couples or adoptive parents. For others, it may be a reaction to some of the research linking paternity leave, and male spouses' involvement at home, to benefits for women's careers. Yet, perhaps most commonly, it's a move to compete for talented young male employees who increasingly want more flexibility and greater involvement in their children's lives.

"Men and women are much more alike now in what they think it takes for a dual career to work," said Friedman, the Wharton professor, who has studied undergrads' evolving views about work and family. "There's much more exploration into alternate ways of living. The zeitgeist has clearly shifted."

One piece of evidence: While there have long been rankings of the best places to work, the best companies for working mothers and the best companies for diversity, there's only recently emerged a similar list for new dads. Compiled by Fatherly, a Web site featuring stories about things like iPad apps for children and a dad raising his kids at sea, the list of 50 companies highlights Twitter (No. 11) as well as Google (No. 1), Bank of America (No. 3) and Patagonia (No. 4).

"The scenario we are in today is a far cry from the father works, the mother does not," said Simon Isaacs, one of Fatherly's co-founders. "Progressive companies are changing their practices to be able to fit that as best as possible."

At Google, for instance, employees who are equal or primary caregivers can get 12 weeks of paid "baby bonding time," regardless of gender. At Bank of America, all new parents can get 12 weeks paid. At Patagonia, fathers get eight weeks paid.

But plenty of companies are not so progressive. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that only 13 percent of U.S. full-time employees had access to paid family leave in 2012 — and it seems likely that much of that was maternity leave.

Even among the most generous companies for new parents, the average length of paid leave for fathers is only about three weeks, according to Working Mother Magazine's editorial director Jennifer Owens.

[A smart way to ease mothers' return to work after maternity leave]

And then there's still the question of whether male employees feel comfortable taking it. When PricewaterhouseCoopers made changes to its policies last year, it not only effectively expanded the number of weeks available for many dads, it also renamed its program — partly in hope that more fathers would take advantage of the benefit. Instead of referring to "primary" and "non-primary" caregivers, it now simply uses the phrase "parental leave."

While the old policy was intended to be gender-neutral, said Jennifer Allyn, managing director of diversity at PwC, the firm realized people don’t necessarily identify themselves that way. “There’s a barrier with the gender norms around who considers themselves the primary caregiver,” she said. “We didn’t want to have distinctions between mothers and fathers.”

That switch to discussing “parental leave," rather than separate maternity and paternity benefits, is a move more companies have been making recently, said Carol Sladek, who leads work-life consulting at Aon Hewitt.

“The idea is to be more about work and life," she said, "instead of saying here’s a benefit for this group and here’s one for that group.”

Others are finding ways to bring more visibility to the men who have taken paternity leave, especially those in leadership roles. PwC recently promoted its longer parental leave in a Webcast the company hosts about work-life issues for men. And Johnson & Johnson CEO Alex Gorsky will be putting up an internal blog post later this week that encourages fathers to take advantage of its new nine-week paid benefit for dads, featuring photos of fathers at the company who are taking the leave.

Facebook vice president Tom Stocky wrote a lengthy public post about his own experience taking four months off (yes, the company offers dads that much, paid) to care for his daughter in 2013. "Wouldn't I be viewed as being less committed to my work, thus stunting my own advancement for the foreseeable future?" Stocky wrote about others' reactions. "I didn't know the answers to these questions, but I viewed this as an important enough experiment to find out."

Research has shown that when men see other men take leave, it has an impact. A study from last year found that men in Norway were more likely to use paternity benefits if they had a brother or coworker who had.

That's another reason Toff, at Twitter, is planning to take all the leave he's been offered. He has 10 direct reports, and a total team size of 40 — most of whom don't yet have children. He said he hopes to set an example. "Both for my own sake, but also for my team's sake," he said, "I'm going to use this policy and spend that time with my child."

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