Sex discrimination, often subtle and unintentional, remains a formidable barrier to the academic careers of women here at one of the nation's most elite universities, according to politically diverse student groups at Harvard and Radcliffe.

In separate studies, released today by a graduate Women's Studies Coalition and the Radcliffe Union of Students, that college's undergraduate governing body, coeds are portrayed as the victims of widespread sexism, especially perpetrated by professors, which results in an unequal and sometimes unpleasant educational experience.

"Sexism is a serious problem on campus here and nationwide," concurred Nancy Randolph, special assistant to the president of Harvard. "It's like racism; it has a chilling effect on the progress of women. And sometimes it can be devastating."

Indeed, Harvard College Dean John Fox noted in a recent report on the status on women at Harvard in the 1970s, "women do not feel truly comfortable here," although "there is nothing now which effectively obstructs equal justice for women at Harvard."

In fact, since a decade ago when virtually no women taught here, the number of female faculty members has soared to 15 percent. Women now account for 35 percent of undergraduates and 33 percent of graduate and professional school students.

"Sure, we've come a long way," says Randolph, who heads the university's affirmative action office. "But it's not enough to give women a real sense of community and role models."

The survey by the Women's Studies Coalition states that 91 percent of women graduate students attending Harvard for five to 10 years experience sex discrimination, with the highest percentage, 95 percent, reported at the medical school. Nearly half the respondents, representing 11 percent of women graduate students, say they were aware of incidents of sexism after only one year. The Radcliffe undergraduate study corroborates that report.

Women respondents cite instances in which professors suggest certain courses are too "offensive" or "heavy" in an effort to edge them out of particular areas of study, usually those dominated by men. In some cases, the women contend, professors give academic preference to male students.

"Women are subjected to more harsh criticism of papers, seminar reports, etc. by certain male members of the faculty," says a respondent in the survey conducted by the Women's Studies Coalition. "This criticism has at times even been deliverately taunting. One member of the faculty jokes about how he has for years intimidated his female students."

Says another of the 258 anonymous graduate students in the report: "A professor referred to a class consisting entirely of women as a 'goddamned chicken pen.'" One woman complained that a professor mixed slides of naked women in red high heels with photographs depicting various diseases.

"This report illustrates that there is widespread, though unintentional discrimination -- and based on my personal experience, I would say that is accurate," said Simone Reagor, director of the Radcliffe Forum, a women's student center recently closed by the university ostensibly for financial reasons.

In an effort to remedy some of the problems on campus, the women recommended the hiring of more women faculty members, a move sanctioned by many administrators, more courses on women's issues and a tighter campuswide focus on sex discrimination and its ramifications.