"Waiter, what's this fly doing in my soup?"

A classic joke in the restaurant business, but the Women's Legal Defense Fund isn't laughing.

According to the Washington-based, national nonprofit organization that provides legal counseling to fight discrimination against women, there is a fly in the soup of America's restaurants -- namely widespread harassment and discriminatory practices that shortchange the careers of more than a million women who make their livings as waitresses.

"Plain old-fashioned discrimination in hiring is the main problem," says Donna Lenhoff, the Defense Fund's associate director.

Lenhoff, who was a waitress while attending college in Chicago, says WLDF board members first started looking at the food service industry a few years ago when, while taking clients to "fancy lunches and dinners and giving big tips," they realized men predominantly hold the best waiting jobs that earn the biggest tips. Further investigation turned up many restaurants that hire only men, or if they do hire women, it's usually for specific and lower paying jobs. Among other findings:

Sexual harassment from both customers and supervisors. As a Rockville waitress told WLDF, "The manager knows every form of sexual harassment there is. Never a day goes by without having your bottom grabbed . . ."

Waitresses are often fired because they are pregnant. A waitress at a suburban Virginia restaurant was fired when she began to show her pregnancy. Her "paternal boss" told her it was time to leave work, go home and have the baby. "But I was pregnant," she says. "Iendcol needed money, and I was given three days' notice."

Promotions are rare. A Takoma Park waitress told WLDF: "The only ladder of advancement to climb is in the 'men's jobs' . . . waiter, maitre d', manager. Women can't hope to go anywhere except to another restaurant where the tips may be higher, but the best of those have a 'waiters only' policy."

Priority assignments go to waiters. A Washington waitress complained to WLDF that a fancy Capitol Hill restaurant provided its waiters and waitresses with identical training, but routinely assigned waiters to "the plush dining room" where they "receive up to three times the tips waitresses make on the 'other' side of the restaurant."

U.S. Department of Labor statistics confirm the reports. Although 86 percent of the 1.5 million people waiting on tables in the U.S. are women (and only 5 percent of those are black), they hold only 40 percent of the management positions in restaurants, cafeterias and bars. And, in 1984, waiters nationwide earned an average of $237 a week while waitresses earned an average of $168.

Yet, for all of its injustices, the nature of the profession -- insecure and transient -- tends to undermine organized efforts to fight for rights. In fact, the Labor Department found that fewer than 15 percent of the women in the food service industry (of which waitresses are a part) belong to a union. When faced with discrimination or harassment, most waitresses either never realize they have legal rights or shrug it off as part of the job.

"You go in and that's the way it is," recalls Lenhoff of her own waitressing experience. "You put up with a lot and it doesn't occur to you to try to change it.

"The public still thinks of waiting on tables as women's work. But that's why its so odd when you walk into the best restaurants and see nothing but tuxedoed men waiting on tables. be thought of as the premium in these fields is just plain discrimination. This is more then 20 years after passage of the Civil Rights Act. But these traditional views of women's roles die hard."

The National Restaurant Association doesn't agree. "We feel that the food service industry is a vehicle for women to advance in," says NRA spokeswoman Dorothy Dee, citing figures that half of food service managment jobs go to women. "It is an upwardly mobile industry for women and offers a good opportunity to make a good wage."

To help waitresses challenge unfair hiring and workplace policies and practices, the Defense Fund last month published The Waitresses Handbook: A Guide to the Legal Rights of Restaurant Workers ($7, WLDF, 2000 P St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20036).

"The handbook covers various areas of law that affect waitresses and many affect waiters as well," says Lenhoff, adding that waitresses have "the same civil rights we all have."

Inn Security

Buying a rural estate and opening a country inn is a popular American fantasy. If it's yours, Sandra Cartwright-Brown, owner of The Conyers House in the Blue Ridge foothills near Sperryville, Va., offers an all-day Workshop for Would-be Innkeepers this Saturday or on April 5, covering issues from bed to breakfast to bookkeeping. Lunch included in $25 fee. (703) 987-8025.

Legal-Ease

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects the number of jobs in the paralegal profession as doubling in the next 10 years. Tomorrow from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m., George Washington University's Legal Assistant Program Career Night gives an overview of the field and information about GW's graduate certificate program. Free. (202) 676-7095.