For Carol, who was one of only two professional women in a Washington office of about 30 men, there were constant comments about her physical appearance, and humiliating and condescending actions that she said caused her to go from loving her job to hating to get up in the morning.

Worst of all, she said, were the statements that implied she shouldn't be there. "If you can't find fulfillment at home, you should be doing volunteer work," one supervisor told her.

When Carol applied for a better job and a man she thought was less qualified was chosen, she complained to the office's equal employment opportunity officer, who decided that although she had been inappropriately harassed, the harassment did not constitute discrimination.

But when Carol took her case to court, charging that management's decisions were tainted by an environment in which women were treated as less competent than their male peers, Carol was awarded more than $100,000 in back pay and attorney's fees.

Carol is not the woman's real name, but the suit was very real -- reflecting similar incidents that happen every day in the workplace. Neither she nor her employer was prepared for the financial and emotional toll of a sexual harassment case.

Reacting to last month's Supreme Court decision that awarded damages to an employe of a District savings and loan, employers may feel more pressure to identify and remove sexual harassment from the workplace. But firms in the Washington area and elsewhere say the task is formidable.

Since 1980, when the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued its guidelines on what constitutes unlawful sexual harassment, employers have struggled with addressing an issue that many of them said they fear they can't identify, except in extreme cases. It lies in a murky gray world of innuendo and social attitudes they feel they can't control, some have said.

Yet sexual harassment has had a profound effect on women at work, on their ability to advance and their productivity, according to social scientists. Studies show that more than half of working women think they have been harassed on the job, and since 1981 complaints to the EEOC involving sexual harassment have increased by more than 70 percent.

Business also is the loser when harassment is permitted, studies show. Workers who are harassed take more sick leave, apply for transfers more frequently and have lower productivity than those who are not harassed. The 1981 Merit Systems Protection Board Survey found that sexual harassment of federal workers cost the government more than $180 million over a two-year period.

"Sexual harassment is difficult to deal with. . . . Its incidences may be so varied, and circumstances surrounding it so individualized, that it is difficult to outline hard and fast procedures for dealing with it," stated a booklet on harassment published for employes of E.I du Pont de Nemours & Co., a company often mentioned by personnel experts as a leader in developing programs to deal with the problem.

Yet, in spite of the difficulties inherent in addressing the problem of sexual harassment, legal experts agree that the Supreme Court's decision in its first case involving sexual harassment will mean a change in many employers' efforts to deal with it.

Some personnel experts said the decision is particularly important because the majority opinion was written by Justice William H. Rehnquist, President Reagan's choice for chief justice. "It's astonishing and marvelous coming from this conservative court," said Lucille G. Shandiloff, a consultant on harassment issues.

"The end result of the case -- that sexual harassment is a violation -- isn't a surprise to too many people," said Marsha Levick, an attorney with the National Organization for Women's Legal Defense Fund. "But the really difficult question of 'When am I liable?' will send the business community scurrying."

In spite of increases in the number of complaints in the last five years, there has been little activity on the part of the majority of businesses to address the issue, according to outside personnel consultants. Of more than a dozen Washington companies surveyed after the decision, about half had policies on sexual harassment. Only two were looking at their policies with an eye toward change.

The ruling in that case, Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, said businesses may be held liable for sexual harassment by supervisors even when the company has not been informed of the conduct. It also said that to prove discrimination under Title VII, the victim need not show that the conduct had a tangible economic impact, but instead could show that it created a "hostile environment."

Mechelle Vinson sued what was then the District's Capital City Federal Savings and Loan, later acquired by Meritor. She said she had been harassed constantly by her supervisor. Although the court did not set an absolute standard for determining employer liability, legal opinions indicate that companies need to act aggressively to protect themselves.

"This decision will confirm the importance of properly educating management, . . . particularly in the area of what constitutes a hostile working environment," said Victor Schachter, a San Francisco attorney who specializes in labor relations and equal employment law on behalf of management. "Regardless of whether they agree with it, they will comply."

Some employers have expressed concern that what is viewed as harassment by one person may be perfectly acceptable behavior to another.

Personnel experts, however, say the definition of harassment as "unwelcome" behavior means that there's no need for a consensus on what constitutes harassment.

"It's not mutual attraction or when adults want to enter into a personal relationship," said Claudia Withers, director of employment programs at the Women's Legal Defense Fund. "When women perceive that things like 'honey' and 'sweetie' make them uncomfortable on the job, it's against the law."

Most of the cases that wind up in court are far more extreme than that, however, as exemplified by three actual cases in the District that reached the courts or the EEOC:

A male supervisor expected the women who worked for him to tolerate his sexual comments, including, "Come on in to my office and take off your clothes." While some replied with a joke or a giggle, others said it was an inappropriate remark. But the women who went along with his form of humor seemed to be the ones who were promoted. Shocked by that allegation, the man denied that such jokes were linked to promotions. A sex discrimination suit against the man's employer is pending.

A female worker complained to a superior that two of her male bosses were harassing her, one by asking that she spend the afternoon at his apartment, another by asking her to join him at a motel. The supervisor dismissed the complaints, saying, "Any man in his right mind would want to rape you." A U.S. district court found that the woman was the victim of illegal sexual harassment, even though no adverse actions were taken against her.

A female employe reported that one of her bosses had subjected her to frequent, open acts of humiliation, including suggestions that she engage in sexual activities with or on behalf of her employer. The company replied that the employe willfully took part in a number of conversations that involved coarse language and sexual innuendo. A sex discrimination and harassment case is under way.

In the past, many companies have felt that they were protected from liability if they had a general policy statement outlawing discrimination. However, in the Meritor case, the Supreme Court rejected the bank's view that "the mere existence of a grievance procedure and a policy against discrimination" protected it from liability.

The court also pointed out that the bank's general nondiscrimination policy did not specifically address sexual harassment, "and thus did not alert employes to their employer's interest in correcting that form of discrimination."

What this decision says, said Sarah Burns, an attorney at Georgetown Law Center's Sex Discrimination Clinic, is that "whatever a company has in writing, what matters is what actually happens."

Very few companies actually define what constitutes sexually harassing behavior, train supervisors to recognize it, encourage employes to report it and take action against employes who harass others.

"Most problems arise because people do not realize that what they're doing is inappropriate and against the law," said attorney Schachter. "There is egregious conduct that takes place."

"The whole focus is training," said June Hajjar, director of the Federal Women's Program for the Department of the Army. "If the work force doesn't know what harassment is , it can't act. Many managers to this day don't know."

Because a person's perception can determine what is harassment and what isn't, employe training is perhaps the most important aspect of dealing with the issue, according to Mary Lou Arey, manager of development in Du Pont's employe relations department.

Beginning about 1981, Du Pont trained all of its employes, using case histories of harassment situations to discuss how they might be handled. It also impressed upon female employes that they needed to be more aggressive, to let coworkers and managers know about undesirable behavior.An Epidemic of Harassment

Some fear that the Meritor decision will cause the downpour of sexual harrassment complaints since the issuance of the EEOC guidelines in 1980 to become a flood. The number of times sexual harassment was a factor in charges with the EEOC rose from 4,272 in 1981 to 7,273 in 1985.

But that is a mere drop in the bucket, according to studies indicating that at least half of all working women have been subjected to sexual harassment. "Sexual harassment of working women is epidemic," said a friend-of-the-court brief filed by several women's bar associations in the Meritor case.

More than a quarter of a million federally employed women, or 42 percent, had been harassed over a two-year period, according to the Merit Systems Protection Board survey. The study also showed that 15 percent of the men surveyed said they had been harassed, proving that it's not only a women's problem.

Meanwhile, a 1985 study of working adults found that more than half of the respondents had been sexually harassed, while 60 percent of the members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employes said in surveys that sexual harassment was a problem for them or that they knew of other members for whom it was a problem. More than half of the union's 1.2 million members are women.

Yet, in spite of what many say is a rising number of women who report they have been harassed, the number of suits filed against companies or individuals has been comparatively small.

One reason may be the psychological toll the cases take on the person who brings the suit, said experts, who frequently compared them to rape cases.

"The most difficult part is the trauma that the plaintiff endures throughout the lawsuit," said Bruce A. Fredrickson, an attorney with Webster & Fredrickson. "They're incredibly personal types of lawsuits."

Women who complain within their companies or file suit are often forced to quit their jobs or suffer further harassment as a result, experts say, which causes many of them -- particularly those at the lower ends of the economic scale -- to put up with the situation rather than risk losing their jobs.

In addition, harassment is difficult to prove, often being a case of one person's word against another's. Frequently, one of the persons involved is a manager, who has the ability to give bad performance evaluations or make reports that cast doubt on the employe's reason for bringing the suit.

"It's an incredible Catch-22," said Beville May, an attorney with Choate, Hall & Stewart in Boston, who specializes in harassment and discrimination cases. "If you report it, you get worse performance evaluations."

One 1983 study of sexual harassment found that one-third of women who complained of harassment suffered negative consequences, such as increased workload, poor evaluations or unwarranted reprimands.

On the other side of the issue are employers, who fear that increased attention to harassment in the workplace will inspire complaints that are unfounded and merely malicious.

"The most difficult thing is finding out what actually happened," said Frank Schmidt, director of human resources for Fairchild Industries. "Employes who get laid off or fired often file complaints. They have nothing to lose."

However, said Shandiloff, "the effect of complaining is often so devastating that I don't think malice is a widespread problem in complaints."

Legal experts have interpreted the Meritor decision to mean that the courts expect employers to show their commitment to ending sexual harassment through actions, not just written policies. Some say that a company's commitment has to be more than just an effort to avoid liability.

"We're trying to have a place to work here," said Madelyn Jennings, vice president of personnel for Gannett Co., who said that over the last several years Gannett has fired several managers for harassment.

"You bet we've fired personnel for harassment," said Joseph L. Ignar, director of personnnel relations for Du Pont.

One of the most difficult areas for businesses to confront, say personnel experts, is what constitutes a hostile or abusive work environment -- which the courts have consistently ruled is "every bit the arbitrary barrier to sexual equality at the workplace that racial harassment is to racial equality," according to the Supreme Court's Meritor decision.

In a decision in the King v. Palmer case, the U.S. District Court of Appeals found that a hostile work environment was created when a manager promoted a woman with whom he was having an affair.

"The court clearly understands that an environment polluted by pervasive sexual conduct has its effect on other members of the office as well," said attorney May -- even on members who aren't directly involved in the conduct.

While the insistence on sexual favors for workplace advancement, a kind of sexual bribery, is the most extreme and easily recognizable form of sexual harassment, studies show that it is the least likely type of harassment. Most women complain, instead, of unwelcome remarks about their bodies or sexual proclivities, off-color jokes and unwanted touching.

And, while some personnel managers despair that the most innocent remark or situation could be taken the wrong way, experts point out that the more innocent forms of social behavior, such as flirting or dating, can be distinguished from harassment by the "unwelcome" or "unwanted" definition.

Ellen Godbey Carson, an attorney who handles rape and harassment cases, says a new wave of harassment and on-the-job rape is occurring with first-generation immigrant women, who are told by their bosses that "this is the way it works here," and with women who work on embassy grounds, where the harasser has diplomatic immunity. Professionals Not Immune

Some might think that Washington, which has the highest percentage of women in the work force of any U.S. city, would have less sexual harassment than most cities because professional women form a large percentage of its female work force. The experts say, however, that these women are not immune to harassment.

In fact, Withers said, sexual harassment is clearly a way to let professional women know they're being treated as women rather than as professionals, a way to make it clear to them that they don't belong.

For Carol, the comments were never really about sex, she said. "It was more patronizing, an object kind of thing. Nobody was trying to do anything but be condescending."

After legal actions that dragged on for more than four years, Carol was ostracized in her office and eventually quit. "It was hell," she said. As for what employers should do, Carol agrees with personnel experts.

"It has to start from the very top level," she said. "They have to educate their employes and take firm action when this happens.

"As long as you're taught by men in power, 'This is the way you treat women,' it won't change," she said.