SEVEN YEARS AFTER graduating from Harvard University Law School, 25 percent of the men but only 1 percent of the women in the class were partners in law firms. Among graduates of the university's school of public health, the average salary for men was $37,800 a year as opposed to $21,300 for women.

These were among the findings of a survey of seven Harvard graduate school classes done by Susan Bailey and Barbara Burrell of the university's Office of Institutional Policy Research on Women's Education. The study, published in Second Century Radcliffe News last winter, concluded that there was "convicing evidence that subtle biases continue to constrain the career development of many women."

The survey examined the careers of the 1972 graduates of the schools of law, dentistry, design, divinity, education, public health, and arts and sciences seven years after the students received their advanced degrees. Women graduates had consistently lower salaries and fewer responsibilities, whether or not they were single or were married with children.

What brings this survey to mind are changes in affirmative action regulations being proposed by the Reagan administration for some 275,000 contractors and subcontractors who do business with the federal government, as well as proposed cuts in the government agencies that monitor employment discrimination and moves on the Hill to outlaw current affirmative action approaches.

The administration posture is that it is committed to the concept of affirmative action but not, as Robert Collier, deputy undersecretary of Labor, told the National Association of Manufacturers, to the "regulatory compliance burden that has traditionally accompanied the concept." The Labor Department has proposed removing back pay as a remedy for discrimination, changing the ways of calculating the availability of women and minorities and reducing the number of companies that have to produce affirmative action plans before getting federal contracts. The idea, said a Labor Department spokesman, is to eliminate the paperwork for smaller contractors while concentrating on bigger companies that would have more jobs to offer women and minorities.

Precisely what the administration has in mind is not yet clear, but its tentative proposals came under attack this Wednesday before a House Education and Labor Committee subcommittee hearing on equal opportunity. Eleanor Smeal, president of the National Organization for Women, accused the administration of "substantially withdrawing the federal government from its longstanding commitment to equal opportunity for women and minorities." Vernon Jordan, president of the National Urban League, criticizing a constitutional amendment offered by Sen. Orrin Hatch that would bar race-conscious remedies for discrimination, said there is "an everburgeoning mood for selfishness that ultimately seeks the destruction of this nation's concern for the disadvantaged."

The Harvard study was not a group that one would normally think of as disadvantaged. These, after all, were people who had enough money to get through college and graduate school at one of the most expensive universities in the world. Furthermore, they had the talent and intelligence to get there. Yet, for all of their advantages, the women in the study encountered the same wage gap that has plagued less advantaged women despite nearly two decades of attempts to lessen it. While women earned $63.9 cents for every dollar a man earned in 1955, they earned only 59.5 cents in 1979, despite passage of the Equal Pay Act in 1963.

An explanation often given for this wage disparity is that women are confined in the clerical and service sectors while men can get jobs in the better paying construction trades and professions. But the Harvard study shows that job discrimination exists even for those women who are trained for the better paying professions. Male graduates from the school of education averaged $26,150 a year while women averaged only $18,700. Men who earned doctoral degrees averaged $30,000 while women earned only $23,000. Almost twice as many women as men graduates were unemployed. Women lawyers employed by the federal government were one of the few categories of graduates who earned more than their male counterparts.

Affirmative action is in for a time of unprecedented scrutiny and, if administration critics are correct, attack. That the wage gap has persisted is evidence that devices we have to correct economic inequality haven't worked as well as they should, and it is an argument for reexamining federal affirmative action regulations to see how they can be made to work better. Weakening affirmative action programs in the name of unburdening business is not the answer. Class action lawsuits and affirmative action programs are the only devices that we've come up with so far to remedy the economic discrimination that limits the earning power not only of those on the lower levels of the economy but of those who are among our most educated citizens.

This is one round in which the poor aren't the only ones who are disadvantaged.