In the 1970s, working women pushed for the right to equal employment opportunity. In the next decade, feminists may rally around the concept of "comparable worth" -- the closing of the gap between wages paid for typical "men's work" and stereotyped "women's jobs."

That was the message lawyers and women's rights advocates brought to nearly 600 women at a conference here this weekend sponsored by the Chicago-based Women Employed Institute.

Industry is taking advantage of a new class of cheap labor -- women who have entered the work force in the past decade -- by not letting their level of wages rise, Eleanor Holmes Norton, head of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission told the conference. "Men who sweep floors" make more than assembly-line women and female stenographers in some factories, she said.

"Adam Smith never taught us that the market sought out the sex of the worker before deciding wages" but corrective wage measures are also unlikely to come through unions, she added.

While urging that federal contractors be made to help close the wage gap, some advocates acknowledged privately that initial evaluations of wage differences would have to be undertaken voluntarily by corporations.

Women Employed was organized seven years ago to press for the rights of office workers in the Loop and has since gone national. It claims 1,000 members here and 2,000 in its Women Employed Advocates lobbing network across the country.

The organization helped initiate the federal government's first employment discrimination case against a federally chartered lender, Harris Bank & Trust of Chicago. An administrative law judge's decision in that case -- regarded as the test case for the banking industry -- is pending.

Women -- who account for 42 percent of the work force -- today earn 59 cents for every $1 men earn, government statistics show. Twenty-five years ago, it was 64 cents for every $1.

"The undervaluing of jobs held by women is a focal issue in trying to achieve equal opportunity," said Mary Schaafsma, a Women Employed board member. While advocates believe the Equal Pay Act eventually can be expanded to include comparable worth, they acknowledged that the concept will take time to press into the consciousness of judges, legislators, unions and the public.

The Supreme Court recently refused to hear an appeal of a case that upheld the right of Denver to pay city hospital nurses less than it paid park maintenance men. The judge in that case had said that raising the salaries of women whose jobs were found to be undervalued would "disrupt the economic system of the USA and its way of life," one lawyer told the conference.

Yet in another major decision recently, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia ruled that Westinghouse Electric Corp. may have discriminated against women by setting up separate and lower wage schedules in the past for women who were doing the same work as men.

"Comparable worth is a concept that scares a lot of people," Donna Lenhoff, staff attorney for the Washington-based Women's Legal Defense Fund, told women attending the conference: "I promise, you're going to love it."

While there is "general resistance to the notion of change," the 1980s are likely to see a number of lawsuits based on the comparable worth issue, Lenhoff said. One such case may arise in Montgomery County, Md., she said, where librarians -- 80 percent of whom are women -- are paid less than liquor store clerks -- 80 percent of whom are men.

Judy Scott, assistant general counsel of the United Auto Workers, said women in unions must bring pressure at the bargaining table for independent job evaluations as a means of upgrading women's wages. The value of that kind of job assessment was demonstrated during World War II, when the War Labor Board brought women's wages in the auto industry up to par, she said.

Day Creamer, executive director of Women Employed, told the conference that government contractors -- who employ 42 percent of the entire work force and who receive $100 billion in federal work each year -- should be the target of the equal opportunity enforcement efforts to "close the wage gap."

The Labor Department has barred 24 federal contractors because of their employment practices since 1965, half of them in the past three years.

In a report submitted recently to the House subcommittee on employment opportunities, Women Employed urged that Labor's Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs be reconstituted as an autonomous administration with the Labor Department to give it more clout.

Thanks to the "myths of the media" about women executives, construction workers, lawyers and government officials . . . "probably a large segment of the public believes that women have made it and that men are victims of reverse discrimination," said Welsh, chairwoman of the Working Women group.

Yet 35 percent of all working women have clerical jobs, while only about 5 percent are in mid-management jobs and less than 1 percent are counted as top management, she said.

"Most of us face employment patterns that make it difficult for us to advance in our careers. It takes us longer to make more money." The average female college graduate, she noted, makes $2,000 less a year than the average male high school dropout.

Nearly 600 women and a handful of men paid $10 to $15 each to attend the all-day conference in the downtown office district here. They were a cross section of jobs and races and included secretaries, steelworkers, lawyers, personnel managers, high school career counselors, bank workers, insurance company and government employes and union representatives. A handful of men attended, among them the vice president of a bank in Minnesota and a union representative from Detroit, both of whom said they were interested in women's rights.

"If this were being held in the 1960s," Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne observed, "about 50 women would be here."