What’s It Like Being a Girl in Rope Access?

Girl in rope access

I look back on my life and, hey, I can proudly say I’ve tried quite a few ways to make a living. I’m a rock climber and a writer. Have been for as long as I can remember and will be for as long as I live. I’ve written a lot and worked in marketing; made sense for a writer. Now I’m a girl in rope access, doing mostly window cleaning; made sense for a rock climber and a dirtbag.

While it’s true that girls in rope access have started to gain ground and recognition worldwide, the process is slow. In fact, women working at heights are an extremely rare occurrence in my part of the world. Yes, there are a few female rope access technicians, but they mostly work abroad. Therefore, you don’t often get to see women at heights here. Probably why people are often surprised to see me.

Perhaps you’ve been wondering what’s up with those girls swinging around in ropes on buildings and other structures. Maybe you’re a man working in rope access and want to know what it’s like for women in this industry. I’m sure you’ll resonate with some parts, too. Or maybe you’re a fellow badass woman in rope access; if that’s the case, let’s see how much you identify with what’s written below.

So here it is, a list of real-life situations that I’m often faced with when working as a girl in rope access. While this article addresses all rope access jobs and offers some insights into this lifestyle, remember that it’s coming from a girl who works mostly in window cleaning.

1. It’s a man’s world

Woman in rope access

Yup, rope access is still a male-dominated industry.

There’s no arguing that it’s freaking hard. It’s physical labor, it’s taxing, exhausting at times. It requires skill and laser focus. There’s no room for silly mistakes. You have to endure and pull through. You need to assess risks and know yourself – how tired you feel, whether you can keep going, whether you are alert enough to stay safe.

In a society that loves to put labels, this kind of manual labor is often seen as “men-only”.

We all know by now that women are pretty much capable of delivering the same standard when it comes to these types of jobs. Just think about it, just as there are women who can work side by side with men, there are men who could never do this job for various reasons (fear of heights, they get tired too fast, medical conditions, etc.). So why put labels on it?

Yet the misconceptions linger and it can be off-putting. There’s worry about being left out, that our male counterparts will be preferred for certain projects. There’s fear that some employers may have lower expectations of women. Indeed, at some buildings, when I present myself as a co-worker in a team of boys, people look at me with a bit of skepticism while analyzing me from top to bottom. They quickly come around, though.

Some even go as far as asking why in the world would I choose to do this “hard work” instead of being “comfortable” in an office. Well, that’s not my idea of being comfortable.

So far, I’ve been lucky enough to work with men who’ve looked at me as their equal. Okay, up to some extent; they still help me out when it comes to carrying or lifting heavy stuff, and I much appreciate that.

2. People mistake you for a man

What's it like being a girl in rope access

A short sequel to the previous point…

Trust me, I do everything I can to show that I’m a girl in rope access. I have a purple helmet, I wear colorful tops, I show a bit of my long hair (just enough so it doesn’t get tangled in the descender), and I try to move like a girl (i.e. with grace). A woman in an office once suggested wearing lipstick so that everyone can plainly see I’m a woman. Didn’t do that, though.

I’d say it’s plain to see my gender, even from afar. However, it looks as though preconceptions blur people’s vision. I’ve heard people addressing me as a man, screaming “Hey, mister! Clean that, too, while you’re there!”. What was I supposed to do? I looked at them, answered with my girly voice, and continued to do my job. To this point, I’m not sure they figured out I’m not a man.

3. You break gender stereotypes

Girl in rope access window cleaning

The truth of the matter is that rope access is a male-dominated industry. Yes, there are more women on the ropes these days, but they remain a rare sight.

On turbines, the work is usually remote, not a lot of spectators there. At concert stages, you get lost among all the people and the usual fuss around the event. On office buildings, where there are loads of people inside as well as bystanders, that’s where the sight of a woman really stands out.

People are not used to seeing a girl hanging from a rope outside their office. Some are just bewildered; others don’t quite understand what’s happening. However, most of the reactions I’ve gotten have been really good. Those who do bother to watch you work gaze with admiration.

Okay, let’s be clear here; not everyone stops and stares. In fact, most people just don’t care when you show up hanging at their window. But in that sea of people, there are a few who do acknowledge that it’s not easy at all, that it takes balls to do it, and therefore look in awe. That’s where small changes happen.

Read more >> 20 Telltale Signs You Might Be a Dirtbag

4. You break other stereotypes, too

The way we present ourselves, regardless of our occupation, is key.

Unfortunately, in some parts of the world rope access has gotten a bad rep; including where I live. This is the case mostly in window cleaning and other building maintenance jobs. Cheap labor dominates, encouraged by both the beneficiaries and the rope access companies. In consequence, many rope access technicians don’t look the part; at all.

It’s clear to see how some beneficiaries have already put labels on this line of work. They expect to see some loud male workers who’ll most likely disturb the people in the offices and perhaps won’t do a very good job either. Isn’t that biased, too?

It’s also clear to see how they change their minds once they see a girl on the team; who smiles, talks nicely, is passionate, and does a good job on top of all that as well. They look at the whole rope access team with different eyes. So I guess it’s up to us girls to break other misconceptions as well.

5. You get freakishly strong

Woman in rope access

Walking around in that bulky harness weighing way too many kilos will alone make your legs stronger. Carrying and lifting that heavy bucket of water (if you work in window cleaning) will double the workout. Then there’s pulling up the ropes, coiling them, having to carry them around. They weigh a ton, I swear.

Not to mention all the other things you may have to do. In stage rigging, you’re climbing on structures with a heavy harness and often other stuff attached to you. There may be situations when you have to do some aid climbing to get to the place you need to access, with all that heavy gear hanging. And then there’s the work itself, which usually involves moving your whole body for an extended period of time.

The result? You get strong. There’s no other way around it. Being a climber, I can see how rope access has made me a lot stronger, both physically and mentally. Even though I sometimes don’t feel like training, simply working in rope access has helped me climb better.

6. People wave at you

It’s always nice to see people banging on the window to get your attention so that they can wave at you or give you a thumb’s up. Some may even go the extra mile and write “thank you” on a piece of paper and show it to you.

Sure, this doesn’t happen all the time. But, even if it only happens once at each project, it’s enough to give me energy to keep me going.

7. You get asked “Aren’t you afraid?” too many times

Girls in widow cleaning

If people want to start a conversation with you, they usually open with “But aren’t you afraid?”. To that, I reply “Sure I am. But I do it anyway.” Then they usually say “I could never do that.”

To be honest, I didn’t think I’d do this either. Full disclosure here, I’m not very comfortable with heights. Alanis Morissette’s lyrics come to mind right now, “I’m brave, but I’m chicken shit.”  

Even though I’ve been climbing outdoors for most of my life, urban heights still scare me. But I try to keep that fear under control. Plus, we’re creatures of habit. You do a thing long enough and you might just become comfortable with it.

8. People take pics of you

From inside the offices where you’re cleaning the windows. From the ground, by all sorts of people who walk by. Some even stop their cars and peek out the window to have a better look and take a pic of you. Makes you feel like a star. Or like you’re part of a freak show. Depends on how you look at it.

But if people are amazed by what they see, why not let them do it? That’s the only way they can see how badass this job really is. And, most importantly, that it can be done by a girl.

9. Your office has a 360-degree view

Rope access view

Just another day at the office… But look at that office! You get a bird’s eye view of the city or surroundings every day.

When working in window cleaning, you spend a lot of time on the roofs of buildings. If you’re anything like me, that’s where you have your coffee and lunch, too.

That’s not just in window cleaning. If you work on wind turbines, or even in stage rigging, you’re often perched high above everything else. Yes, you have a permanent view many would be jealous of.

10. You have a year-long tan that leads to envy

Most often, you carry out your job outside, exposed to the elements. Whenever it’s sunny and warm (hot even), as much as you struggle to find shade, you’re still going to get some sun. When it’s sunny and cold, you get to work on your tan when most people wouldn’t. Then, as you casually walk around the building you’re cleaning, you overhear women saying “look at that natural tan!”

11. Sometimes, it’s freaking tiring

Girl rope access window cleaning

You’re out there in the elements – cold, hot, windy, rainy. You gotta get the job done. Sure, you don’t do anything rash and you don’t work during extreme weather. But there are times when you need to clean windows at 2 degrees Celsius (35 F). Let’s be clear, that means washing windows, with water, in the cold. That cold water gets on your hands, which were already cold enough. Then on your legs and feet. It ain’t pretty.

On the other hand, when it’s 37 degrees Celsius (98 F) outside and you have to work because the climate’s all f**ked up, things get really hot. And not in a good way. Physical labor at that temperature is simply exhausting. Don’t even get me started about the rooftops where there’s about a gazillion degrees.

Or when you work for a concert stage, on the beach, on the middle of summer, no clouds in sight. You can literally feel your body drying out.

Sometimes, we push the limits of our bodies. Our “poor, fragile, girly bodies.” Yet we manage to survive and we do a damn good job while at it.

12. Your hands are rougher than the average man’s

Oftentimes, your hands can reveal the kind of job you have. Mine are rough, with big calluses and dirty fingernails. If you were to shake my hand while blindfolded, you’d probably think I was a man who’s just come back from working the field.

Sure, climbing has a similar result on my hands – they get rough and dry. But rope access plays a big role, too. The dirt, the ropes, the water, the sun, it all adds up.

13. You get dirty

Rope access window cleaning

Depending on the job, best case scenario is that you get sweaty and stop there. That rarely happens.

Window cleaning is a dirty job. A bit counterintuitive, I know. The windows do get cleaned, but you often come out of the whole deal looking a mess.

Most large cities are polluted and that can be seen on the windows. Even if they are washed frequently, the water still gets murky. Now imagine those buildings that only get washed once a year or less? The water coming off the windows is pitch black! Well, all that filthy water gets on you – on your hands (hence the black cuticles and fingernails), on your knees, on your shins, on your forearms, sometimes on your face! Yeah, it’s kinda gross.

In stage rigging, your palms turn black because of all the aluminum you handle. You can wear gloves, sure, but sometimes you just want that good old friction that only your bare hands can offer. Plus there’s the dust, the oily mess from all the stage motors and hoists, and the list goes on.

14. There’s never a dull moment

Rope access changing room

Each project is different – different job to be done, different anchor points, heights, techniques you use to access the place where you work, wind conditions, surroundings, and so on.

You interact with all sorts of people and you never stay in one place for too long. It’s always off to the next project, with its own peculiarities, new challenges, different setup, other persons to meet. It’s virtually impossible to get stuck in a rut.

15. You’re free

Woman in rope access

When you’re out there on the ropes, you’re on your own. You may have a boss, but when you’re hanging there, you’re your own boss. You call the shots.

In window cleaning, you swing in a harness and seat outside offices. You’re out there with the elements. You get to see the sky, look around the city, observe the people walking by below you, watch the traffic, look inside the offices… You can listen to music, you can talk about whatever you wish, keep quiet, laugh, cry…

It’s quite freeing being on the opposite side, not having someone breathing down your neck. I’m very lucky to be working on projects where I don’t feel any pressure (only the one I put on myself to get the job done right).

Confidence also plays a part in feeling free, and working in rope access has given me a lot of it, on many different levels. I am more confident dealing with all sorts of people and situations. I’ve become more resourceful. It’s helped my climbing since I’m a lot more relaxed when it comes to heights and new challenges.

Final words

As women in rope access, we have the power to change the world with (very) tiny steps. If we can show one person at each project that women are just as capable of doing badass jobs, that’s a huge win. Take it.

So come on, girls, let’s go kick some ass!

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