The state of Washington and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees announced yesterday they will attempt to negotiate a settlement to a landmark "comparable-worth" case that inspired a nationwide wave of sex-discrimination suits against cities and states.

In the 1982 suit, brought by AFSCME, U.S. District Court Judge Jack Tanner found the state guilty of "pervasive" discrimination in setting lower pay scales for 15,000 state workers in female-dominated jobs, compared to pay for job classifications dominated by men. The state appealed the ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals, where a decision is pending.

The ruling prompted unions and women's groups in dozens of cities and states to file lawsuits and push for government studies of the issue. More than two dozen states, including Maryland and Virginia, are conducting comparable-worth studies. At least six states have adopted plans and appropriated money to raise wages of workers in traditionally female jobs in state bureaucracies, including a $40 million plan in Minnesota.

At a news conference in Olympia yesterday, Gov. Booth Gardner (D) said he believes in the "basic fairness" of remedying pay discrimination against women.

A negotiated settlement, he added, could save the state hundreds of millions of dollars compared to the possible cost of losing the court case -- estimated at $500 million to $1.5 billion, including back pay for victims of discrimination.

The 1985 session of the Washington state legislature appropriated $41 million to begin correcting gender-based inequities but made the appropriation contingent on seeking an out-of-court settlement. Gov. John Spellman (R), defeated by Gardner in 1984, had refused to negotiate a settlement.

AFSCME President Gerald W. McEntee applauded the state's decision, saying, "Bargaining is always our method of choice to correct sex-based wage discrimination."

Negotiations are to begin Sept. 9.

Proponents of the controversial comparable-worth or "pay equity" concept argue that traditionally female jobs, such as nursing and secretarial work, are paid less than many male-dominated jobs that have similar or lower qualifications. They say the skill, education and experience required in many female-dominated occupations is undervalued.

Opponents of comparable pay, including the Reagan administration, argue that pay differentials between sexes are a product of marketplace forces of supply and demand rather than illegal discrimination that government should remedy.