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Picture Yourself

Have you seen the Dove Real Beauty Sketches video that went viral this spring? The three-minute video features the FBI-trained forensic sketch artist Gil Zamora, who was hired by Dove to draw portraits of women—one based on their own description and another based on the description of a “friendly stranger,” someone with whom the woman has just had a brief conversation. The artist is behind a curtain and can’t see any of the women.

The results are fascinating when the pairs of portraits are displayed side by side: Each of the women overwhelmingly described herself in a way that was far less physically attractive than the description provided by the stranger! The ad ends with the words “You are more beautiful than you think” displayed on the screen.

After the video made the rounds of my group of Facebook friends, my friend Ashley Salter quipped, “Dial has announced a sketches campaign for men. The results were shockingly different: All men described themselves as looking like this: ______________”—and he posted a sketch of Harrison Ford. (There’s also a hilarious parody of the Dove video that shows how men see themselves.)

It is poignant enough that women are their own worst beauty critics, but the phenomenon is more than skin deep. Studies show that women are also critical of their professional competence. Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In details the many ways that women underestimate and undervalue their professional expertise, including not asking for promotions, not jumping on new assignments, and not asking for more responsibility.

Just this week, a very talented friend, a Harvard graduate with an advanced degree whose work has received kudos, expressed concern about applying for a position in which she was a 95-percent match for the job description but lacked one of the skills listed. She was quickly reminded that most men would not shy away—figuring that they could acquire the one new skill with ease—and she applied for the job.

My own first job evaluation after graduate school stung: “Gina is unwilling to take on new tasks unless she is sure she will succeed.” I had always succeeded in academic assignments, so I was stunned to realize that I lacked confidence professionally, and I’m glad it was pointed out to me so early in my career, because I started taking more risks.

So I just want to say to every woman out there, believe in yourself. Believe in your beauty. Believe in your training. Believe that you can learn something new, pronto. Picture yourself as the female version of Harrison Ford. You are more beautiful and more competent than you think.

Gina Stewart has a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from the University of Texas at Austin. She is the chief executive and a founder of Arctic Inc., which develops sustainable methods of weed control for turf and agriculture. She is writing a series of posts about nonacademic careers for Ph.D.’s in the sciences.

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