Working women are walking away from high heels.

According to a survey taken for foot and ankle surgeons, the younger women are, the more likely they are to work in flats - or even athletic shoes."Twenty percent of all women now wear sneakers to work," said Dr. Michael Bowman, chairman of the American Orthopaedic Foot and Ankle Society's shoewear committee. And that's to work and for work - not just wearing sneakers on the street and changing to heels in the office.

As a result, Bowman said, he is seeing fewer young women with serious foot deformities.

For decades, women have had the vast majority of foot operations for problems such as bunions, hammer toes and pinched nerves.

The reason: high-heeled, pointy-toed, narrow shoes with a soul of fashion rather than a sole of comfort.

"That's why I'm developing a bunion now - years of abuse to my feet," said Madeline Bobbin, an IBM secretary in New Orleans.

She's held jobs where she thought of stiletto-toed high heels as de rigueur. She won't wear those again, she said.

These days, her standard work shoe is a 1-inch pump. Friday she wore it in gold. "I have this same identical shoe in taupe and black and navy," she said.

Nicki Cain, a 38-year-old information technology specialist in the same office, wore a shoe with a wide heel and round toe. Dressier outfits call for different shoes. "But that only happens once or twice a year, because none of the clients are dressing up anymore."

Thirty-eight percent of the 499 women surveyed wore the same sort of shoe as Ms. Bobbin: pumps with a heel up to 1 inch high. Twenty-one percent wore pumps with a heel of 1 to 21/4 inches, and only 14 women - 3 percent - said they wore higher heels than that.

The survey had a 5 percent margin of error. So, for instance, the 23 percent who reported wearing athletic shoes to work could be as few as 18 percent or as many as 28 percent. But with 61 million women in the workforce, even 18 percent is still a sizable number.

The orthopedic society's past president, Dr. Michael Coughlin, estimated in 1996 that foot problems cost the United States $3.5 billion in surgery, wages and productivity.

The survey's results weren't any surprise to Dick Silverman, associate publisher of Footwear News in New York.

"The biggest trend in the shoe market for the past three years or so has been comfort," he said.