A federal judge yesterday ordered the United States Information Agency to notify more than 4,400 unsuccessful female job applicants that they may be entitled to back pay and preferential hiring status as a result of the agency's discrimination against women.

U.S. District Judge Charles Richey said the agency must publish the notices in newspapers in the nation's 18 largest metropolitan areas and send certified letters to all women who applied and were rejected for jobs between 1974 and 1984.

USIA is an independent federal agency that operates the Voice of America network and various public relations programs on behalf of the United States. Richey, ruling last year in a class-action case that had been pending since 1977, found that USIA had discriminated against women job applicants.

The judge's order affects women who applied unsuccessfully to be foreign language broadcasters, writers and editors, foreign information specialists, production specialists, electronic technicians and radio broadcast technicians.

USIA spokesman Lesley Vossen declined to comment, saying that USIA lawyers had not received Richey's ruling.

Bruce Fredrickson, an attorney for the women applicants, said the order was unusual in its scope and could expose the agency to several million dollars in back pay claims.

Under the ruling, women who can prove that they applied unsuccessfully to USIA between Oct. 8, 1974, and Nov. 16, 1984, will be entitled to back pay unless the agency can prove there was "a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason" that the woman was rejected.

In determining the amount of back pay awards, Richey said the unsuccessful applicants could receive the difference between what they would have earned had they been hired by the agency and what they have earned in their subsequent jobs.

Although the agency was ordered to mail notice of the ruling to all known applicants, Fredrickson said that USIA's application records date back no further than 1982.

"There might be a problem in determining {the legitimacy of some claims}," Richey said. "But the problem is of the agency's own creation. They've had these records, and they destroyed them."