The relatively modest -- but growing -- number of women at Caltech did not figure much in Hillary Walker's mind when she decided to enroll this fall as a freshman at the prestigious science and engineering campus in Pasadena.
But the 18-year-old physics student from Alaska was delighted to learn that she is part of a record-breaking uptick in the number of females at a school lampooned in the past as a place where extremely bright male scholars bonded more with microscopes than with members of the opposite sex.
"I think it's wonderful. I'm always happy to see more women in science," said Walker, who chose Caltech over Princeton University and MIT because of what she described as the school's intimate size, research opportunities and friendly environment. Besides, she said, having more women on campus "might liven up the social atmosphere. The men will certainly welcome it."
According to preliminary figures, 87 women are entering a freshman class of 206 students in September. That 37% share is Caltech's highest since it began admitting undergraduate women in 1970, when pioneering females comprised 14% of the entering class. (Female doctoral candidates first arrived in the 1950s.)
Six years ago, women made up about 36% of freshmen, but that dropped to as low as 28.5% last year.
The new rise may not seem very dramatic to the outside world. Caltech still lags the 46.1% female enrollment expected in this fall's freshman class at its East Coast rival, MIT, which offers a broader range of majors, and the 42.6% expected at Harvey Mudd College, the science-and-math-focused school in Claremont.
And all those schools still lag the current 57% female enrollment total at colleges nationwide.
Still, the increase at Caltech -- a small and intellectually elite campus where the middle range of SAT scores is in the top 1% or 2% nationally -- is significant. It represents progress in getting more women into the highest levels of technology and science training, officials said.
"The more women we have on this campus, the better it is for everybody," said Erica O'Neal, Caltech's assistant vice president for student affairs. "It is better for women to not feel so isolated. And it is better for the guys to learn how not to be awkward with the opposite sex."
Caltech students said they are not expecting a revolution in social life or an end to the much-discussed practice of "glomming," in which a posse of young men annoyingly seek the attention of one woman. But, they add, it doesn't require an 800 on your math SAT to realize that the improved ratio will boost men's chances for an on-campus girlfriend.
Michael Woods, a senior and chairman of the council that governs campus residence halls, said he welcomes anything that makes "the social environment at Caltech a little bit more like the rest of the world."
The old stereotype of Caltech students as romantically clueless holds some truth, although that is changing, said Woods, 20, a physics major from Torrance.
"Most of the students who come to Caltech spent most of their high school careers being nerds, and I myself am no exception," he said. "But I hope that does not make us totally socially inept."
The "emotional learning" in dorms and clubs, Woods said, "is a vital aspect of college that isn't represented in tuition and lecture halls."
Incoming freshman Elizabeth Mak, a Pasadena resident who plans to major in biology, said it is important to encourage more women to enter the traditionally male-dominated fields of science and technology.
Mak, 18, noted that she followed the controversy that arose two years ago when Lawrence Summers, then president of Harvard University, said that innate differences between men and women might be a reason why there was a dearth of female professors in the sciences.
Summers' comments sparked an immediate uproar and played a role in his departure from Harvard last year. He was replaced by a woman.
But whatever the biological differences are between males and females, "opportunity and success should be equal for both sexes," Mak said.
Although Caltech insists that it did not lower its notoriously tough admission standards or practice affirmative action for women, the school said it more actively and shrewdly recruited women this year.
Among other things, Caltech made its female applicants more aware that, for example, they could be physics majors but also study music and literature, said Rick Bischoff, director of undergraduate admissions.
"That's not to say men are not interested in those issues," but those seem to resonate more with women, Bischoff said.
According to the National Science Foundation, women outnumber men in the full-time graduate-level study of many biological sciences, but are woefully underrepresented by a 2-1 ratio in physical science fields, such as chemistry and physics, and by a 3-1 ratio in computer science.
Caltech is not alone among science and engineering campuses in grappling with gender imbalances. Harvey Mudd College, which also attracts top-flight students, saw its percentage of freshman women drop to about 25% last year from a recent average of about 33%. But this year, the campus is proud of a rise to a record 42.6% of an expected 197 freshmen.
That increase was attributed in part to the actions of Harvey Mudd's new president, Maria Klawe, the first woman in that post. Among other steps, she sent handwritten letters to every woman who had been accepted at Harvey Mudd, urging them to enroll there.
"It didn't hurt at all that we have a woman president who cares deeply about these issues," said Peter Osgood, Harvey Mudd's admissions director.
The anticipated female presence among MIT's 1,070 freshmen -- 46% -- is close to what it has been for the last four years or so. MIT does not have "quotas of any kind or policies that would mirror such quotas, but we do try our best to enroll as diverse a class as possible across the board," said Ben Jones, associate director of admissions.
At Cal Poly San Luis Obispo's engineering college, the percentage of female freshmen is up slightly from 13.1% to 15.4%. The percentage of female freshmen enrolled in its college of science and mathematics is expected to remain at about 56% this fall, the same as last year, said James Maraviglia, assistant vice president for admissions and financial aid issues.
Phoebe Leboy, president-elect of the Assn. for Women in Science, said the presence of women in many science fields is rising. She attributed the increase to improved K-12 education and to young men being lured to more lucrative careers, such as Wall Street.
Leboy has a mixed view of Caltech's recruitment of women.
"I think they can do better," she said, "but one has to give them a pat on the back for improving things."