Gloria Cuccurullo began working for the State of New York in 1967 as a stenographer. Twelve years later, she had worked her way up the ladder to a job that was administrative in nature, but secretarial in job rating and pay. She wanted more.
''There were no mechanics for non-degreed people to transfer to administrative jobs,'' recalls Ms. Cuccurullo. Only college graduates were eligible to take the civil service examinations that lead to managerial jobs.
''All that experience I had was not in any way equal to people with four-year degrees,'' she says, referring to the civil service system.
This sort of ''structural'' barrier to advancement is a focus at the Center for Women in Government, a part of the State University of New York at Albany. Founded in 1978 to tackle such systematic obstacles, the center has studied the structure of career ladders and civil service promotion processes. Instead of concentrating on individual cases of intentional discrimination, the center works toward reform that will give women, minorities, and disabled people increased access to better jobs. Women's organizations, unions, and government work with the center to facilitate such change.
Today, Ms. Cuccurullo is a health-program administrator for schools in the state's health department. A parallel exam for noncollege graduates was formulated, and her scores were high enough to get her a job as a budget analyst trainee. She went through the 24-month program in 18 months.
And through a clerical transition program designed with help from the center, Ms. Cuccurullo says she has had no real trouble moving into an administrative job.
''The (transition program) established is by far one of the best,'' she says. It helps people who have been secretaries for years cope with some of the changes becoming a manager entails. Writing and speaking skills are polished. Questions of treatment by other employees are discussed.
Proponents of this approach see it as one element in the drive to give women and minorities equal opportunity. It uses discussion and negotiation rather than lengthy litigation or court orders that are appealed.
Amy Vance, a program officer at the Ford Foundation, says the center's approach offers a ''very interesting strategy. It is one of a number of strategies to deal with occupational segregation. It makes an enormous amount of sense.''
One of the animating forces behind the center was frustration. Executive orders at the local, state, and federal level, antidiscrimination laws, and litigation are tools being used to help women receive equal opportunities in the job force.
But the overall impact has not been significant, observers say. Wage gaps still exist.
''The top people in government do care about equality,'' says Nancy D. Perlman, executive director of the center. But that doesn't always seem to be enough, she says. A close look at reasons behind slow advancement might yield new ways to help women.
Cataloging the problem is not difficult. In 1981, some 48 percent of New York State employees were women, yet three times as many men as women earned more than $16,000. Twice as many women as men earned less than $10,000.
Jobs tend to be segregated by sex. Women make up 85 percent of state clerical force, but less than 20 percent of government officials and administrators. In New York City in 1981, 12 percent of women employees held managerial posts. But 95 percent of those were in the lowest-level managerial job.
The center began research on career ladders, and how people moved up them. They looked at employment structure - how much workers were paid when they began , and when their earnings peaked. They found that sometimes, as in the case of Gloria Cuccurullo, the system stood in the way of promotion.
For the center, the answer lies in training women as leaders, making use of public education and networking, and continual research to pinpoint logjams.
Ms. Perlman tells of a debate over the so-called ''rule of three'' in promoting government workers. When selecting employees after civil service exams , the top three finalists received preference for the job opening. Some worried that the rule, originally intended to stop patronage appointments, might have a chilling effect of women and minorities in state government.
The center did a two-year study that looked at every single management exam, at every stage. Researchers watched eligibility, how the examination was announced, who the finalists were, and who was hired.
''We found the rule of three was benign,'' Ms. Perlman says. If women and minorities were able to take the test, they most often held their own. The problem was in the eligibility for the exams. Nearly 85 percent of those who took the tests were white males, Ms. Perlman says.
''Once women were allowed into the process, they did fine,'' she adds. Based on the findings, union and management put together funds to began three pilot programs that changed eligibility rules. There were no formal negotiations or new legislation, but one barrier was disassembled.
More than 8,000 women have passed through the center's training programs in New York State. These programs include management training, career planning and counseling, and sexual harassment prevention. And $70,000 in grants will soon extend the programs to other states.
Ms. Perlman sees affirmative action, litigation, and legislation as necessary legal underpinnings in equal employment efforts.
But she has a strong sense that looking at how employment is structured is important to change the overall statistics on women and work.