Women on Rope Our Perspective By Lesley Poulson.
Rope access is a relatively young industry in comparison to most. Since the late 1980s, it’s mainly men who have searched out rope access jobs around the world. However, in recent years more and more women with trades are seeking rope access training with SPRAT and IRATA certifications and securing positions throughout the industry.
We asked a female rope tech to share her experience of the industrial rope access world with us.
As all of you in the industry already know, the world of rope access is heavily dominated by men; like most trades. It’s a physical and often dirty, outside job, which in the beginning attracted strong, outdoor oriented males wanting to fill a new niche.
In the last few years, more and more females have begun to take an interest. Our reasons for getting into the industry are usually the same as our male counterparts. We climb already, why not make a buck out of it? We have a trade already but this will make us look exponentially cooler. Or for some, we saw that other guy doing it in the city that time and thought it looked fun. But why are there so few of us? Some men who’ve been in the industry their entire lives and travelled extensively, have yet to meet a female rope tech. Is the job any different for us ladies compared with the guys?
As industrial and construction sites have always been ‘man’s world’ kind of places, it’s pretty intimidating for a woman to start out. What are the crew dynamics? Will they treat us like one of the guys or will we be an outsider? Or will we get hit on all the time and never taken seriously? Every scenario you’ve seen in the movies runs through your mind. This could partly explain the notable absence of women, despite us being in an age where there have never been more women in trades.
Another reason might be the perception that it’s just too physically hard. I myself even questioned my own ability to progress through the IRATA levels as a smaller woman, until recently. This is one perception that needs to be eliminated from the female mind. With the right training and techniques, there’s no reason a small person of any gender can’t be a great Level 3. We do rope access because we can’t reach, right?
So do we come across any inequalities that work against us? What are the cons of being a woman in this trade? I ran a list of things through my mind and to be honest, most of them were pretty minor. One I think all women in the biz can relate to, is not being able to pee with your harness on! Drinking just enough water to be hydrated, but not too much that you’re needing the bathroom before lunch? It’s an art form.
The one and only time I’ve felt truly ‘discriminated against’ (sorry, that term makes me cringe) because of my gender was when I was trying to find work in Australia last year. I gained experience in Canada, then moved down south to do a few months work and I literally got laughed at and hung up on when calling companies and expressing interest. That felt pretty awful. In the end, most of the companies were perfectly respectful and I was offered a number of jobs. So all’s well that ends well. But the fact that even happened was disheartening.
We do find we often have to work that extra bit harder to prove ourselves and gain the same level of respect as the guys. More so with the older generation. Some can be a bit set in their ways and still have the ‘women should be in the kitchen’ kind of attitude, which fortunately we don’t come across too often.
So there aren’t many cons. Are there any benefits to being a female that might help us? Once again, the small things come to mind first. People are friendlier (although this does make a big difference to site dynamics, so not really a ‘small thing’ in my mind), we fit into the smaller confined spaces easier and seeing the surprised look on people’s faces after they’ve worked with you and realized you’re actually pretty good at what you do. That one’s priceless.
In terms of crew benefits though, I think having a female on the team mixes things up a bit. It kills the ‘macho’ vibe that can sometimes breed in an all-male crew. People relax a little too; especially once they realize you can handle that type of humor just as well as any guy. A few of us have been told that our female attention to detail is a little more acute as well, so for the more delicate jobs, we come in handy.
Really when you look at what I’ve written here, the differences between how men and women get by in rope access are few and minor. We might have to learn an extra trick or two to pick a large casualty or maybe we take an extra few seconds to create more mechanical advantage for hauling Rescue Randy across the room; but the positives far outweigh the negatives. And at the end of the day I think out of all of the trades, rope access is a great fit for women. You don’t have to be a huge hulk of a man to be great at this job. I love that everyone is generally young and fit and in the same mindset as one another. With the open-mindedness of the type of people that do rope access, the old school man’s world mentality is on its way out.
The last thing I want to say, I’ll aim at any female thinking about getting into the business. If you’re the type of woman who’s easily offended or you don’t have a sense of humor, the industrial world isn’t ready for you yet. You need a thick skin and the ability to laugh to get by in this industry. If you come into your new rope job equipped with those things, a good attitude and a strong work ethic, you’ll do just fine.
See you in the field.
By Leslie Poulson (with contributions from Kat Finke and Mira Grbich)
If you’re a woman working in rope access, or you’re just interested in seeing what we get up to everyday, like our Facebook page: Women in Rope Access.
About the author: Leslie Poulson is an IRATA Level 2 rope tech originally from New Zealand, with experience in both industrial and commercial urban rope access. She is currently living and working in Canada. Prior to a career on the ropes, Leslie studied birds for a living.