The U.S. Court of Appeals here has upheld a controversial finding that the accounting firm Price Waterhouse unlawfully discriminated against a former female manager here because it permitted sexual stereotyping to play a "significant role" in denying her a partnership.

Ruling in its first case in the area since the Supreme Court's landmark decision on partnerships in 1984, the court issued a split decision Tuesday that also overturned U.S. District Judge Gerhard A. Gesell's decision not to award back pay to the woman, Ann B. Hopkins, and sent the case back to him to determine the amount of pay.

"The court has said that the use of sexual stereotyping is one way of proving discrimination in collegial decision making, such as partnerships," James H. Heller, Hopkins' attorney, said yesterday.

Heller said no estimates have been made of how much money Hopkins, now a private consultant here, might receive.

Attorneys for Price Waterhouse could not be reached yesterday.

Price Waterhouse is one of the largest partnerships in the world, with about 700 partners.

Hopkins joined Price Waterhouse in August 1978 as a manager in its Office of Government Services here and specialized in preparing, securing and managing contracts for large-scale computer systems designed for government agencies. Of the 88 persons recommended for partnership at the same time, Hopkins was the largest income-producer and the only woman.

Price Waterhouse argued that Hopkins' lack of interpersonal skills was the reason she wasn't made a partner in 1982. In the selection process, Hopkins was criticized as being too "macho" and one partner suggested that she go to "charm school."

The court majority classified the case as one of mixed motivations, that is, that Hopkins was passed over both because of the sexual stereotyping that affected the process and because of legitimate criticisms.

But it said that in cases where stereotyping has been shown, it is up to the employer to prove that discrimination did not take place. Usually the employe must prove bias.

"The District Court simply found that both {Hopkins'} personality and the sexually stereotyped reactions to her personality were significant factors in the firm's decision to hold her candidacy," U.S. District Judge Joyce Hens Green wrote for the three-judge panel.

"Because Price Waterhouse could not demonstrate by clear and convincing evidence that impermissible bias was not the determinative factor, however, the District Court properly found for Hopkins," Green said.

Circuit Judge Stephen F. Williams filed a strong dissent in which he said the criticisms of Hopkins were not sexual and accused the majority of a "dramatic imaginative leap."