It was the moment they'd been awaiting all week. For most of their waking hours the 31 women managers from the Department of Transportation had been isolated in a Harper's Ferry motel studying power, management and career strategies.

Now they had a chance to ask The Big Boss, Transportation Secretary Neil Goldschmidt, how he made it to the top.

"You don't get to be in a position like mine unless you're lucky," "Goldschmidt told the participants in DOT'S management development program for women. "Five months ago I was a mayor (of Portland, Ore.) on my knees begging for money. Then the call came (from the White House).

"I'm here out of the desperation of the people who hired me. They couldn't find anyone else stupid enough to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic."

Luck was one of the few career advancement techniques that hadn't been covered in the intense, week-long program. Begun last year in an effort to boost the number of high-level women managers in DOT, it has received raves from the more than 100 women who have participated.

Open to DOT women in grades GS-11 through GS-15 (plus "high-potential" GS-9s), the program employs three female management consultants who present a week of lectures, discussions, simulation games and sharing exercises.

It takes place in "remote environments" like Harper's Ferry or Denver so the women are totally immersed in the training.

"We're trying to help women take charge of their careers," says assistant secretary Edward W. Scott Jr., a self-described "18-year career bureaucrat" who initiated the program.

"A little more than 17 percent of our employes are females. Most are in clerical or technical support operations. Only a small number are working as managers. We want to change this situation and encourage women to take on management roles with greater ease and better preparation."

The course isn't a "warmed-over version of management for men," says trainer Jinx Melia.

"Women already have those 'person-oriented' skills taught by traditional programs geared to men. Women need the skills men learned by growing up playing team sports and being expected to achieve. We're teaching women how to take risks, use power, build networks, make contacts and learn to play the game to win."

While Melia focuses on "teaching women how to be powerful without giving up who they are," Martha Spice concentrates on personal career strategies and Lucy Freedman deals with communication and self-awareness.

"I've learned that I limit myself more than I need to," confessed presidential management intern Linda Samuelsen. "I have a lot of good ideas that I don't carry through because I don't feel that I have the authority.

"I discovered this after we played a simulation game, and learning from experience like that really sinks in. I can promise you in the future I won't feel at all uncomfortable taking on roles to help get the job done."

"Because of my outspokenness I've not progressed as far in my government career as I could," said travel regulations specialist Ola Belle Burley.

"When I get back to the office I'm going to think about what I say before saying it."

For others it eliminated some nagging doubts.

"I've always wondered if my strong concern with how other people feel would stand in the way of my being a good manager," said Gladys Harris, the only woman, the only black and the youngest engineer in the department.

"I've learned that I could do both -- be a manager and still care about other people's feelings.

"And by meeting women from all over DOT I've begun to see a bigger picture of how things work."

To keep and broaden these contacts, program graduates continue to meet for monthly "women's network" luncheons and have formed a steering committee to address management issues affecting women.

"The effect it's had on participants is overwhelming," said program coordinator Mary Mathews. "It's begun to take on a life of its own.

"My dream is that we'll have some savvy women in Washington who know how to use power," says Melia, noting that several other agencies have expressed interest in the program. "I think women have good values . . . and will integrate them into society so that people, not profit, will be the bottom line."

"Goldschmidt echoed this sentiment. "I hope," he told the group, "you have some sense that this country is moving in your direction, or you are moving the country in the right direction."