It’s a sight you’ve likely encountered, whether from sitting in a high rise building or standing on the street below; a brave individual abseiling down a building, supported by little more than a rope and a harness.
They have a view of the city we could only dream of, suspended high in the sky from some of the tallest buildings. It’s called rope access, and it has been developed from climbing and caving techniques to allow workers to access hard-to-reach locations without scaffolding, cradles, or an aerial work platform.
It goes without saying that the faint-hearted need not apply, with only a complex network of harnesses, ropes, and pulleys between the worker and the ground far-below, with the job requiring an open mind for constant learning and development.
Becoming qualified is a complicated process of multiple levels, and can be used for a variety of jobs, including painting, rendering, repairs, cleaning, and inspections. However, like many trade qualifications, internationally, the workforce is overwhelmingly male-dominated: of the around 9,200 that are qualified at the highest level (3) around the world, only 0.68% (or 63) are women.
We find out more about this fascinating way of life, and how more women can get involved below.
With a unique view high in the sky, it’s evident that those in rope access see things far outside the typical daily grind.
“Everything we do is insanely safe and measured,” says Georgia Bast, who works in high-level building maintenance in Sydney, battling numb fingers on cold mornings. “But things do get a little wild whenever you catch someone in the nude (and it's never something you want to be seeing), or a cat jumps up at the window. One time I even found a baby bird that fell down the fire stairs.”
“We see some pretty spectacular weather events and have had to do mad rushes to pack up as we’ve watched giant angry storms roll quickly into us,” adds Jennifer Owens, who has “the worst tradie hands” and generally works in building maintenance, bush regeneration, and height safety installations and certifications. “I’ve been abseiling on the side of a cliff on an island doing weed removal and watched whales breaching which was pretty magical.”
Coming from diverse careers before making the sky-high move, rope access provides a diverse array of paths, allowing technicians to pursue a range of experiences — all that’s needed is an open mind.
Prior to working in building maintenance and installing anchor points, Stephanie Raftos worked in an office doing admin, leaving for a life where no two days are the same.
“I love being outside and the views are always different and stunning,” she says. “My goal is to grow and learn new skills. My partner and his friend have started their own company (in this field), so hopefully in the future I can work with them and help the company expand and grow.”
“It also a very easy job to travel with, as the qualification is internationally recognised, which is awesome.” — Stephanie Raftos
Coming from working as an instructor at an outdoor recreation camp, Georgia hopes to keep extending her skills. “I dream of running away with the circus,” she says. “Technical rigging is something that I really would love to learn more about, and maybe that can take me into rescues or aerial rigging.”
For Jennifer however, with a degree in environmental science and a background in Bush Regeneration, she hopes to one day combine her two passions. “It keeps me fit, active, and outdoors,” she says. “I went into rope access with the dream of combining rope access with environmental conservation somehow. I’m passionate about the environment and wish there was more money dedicated to looking after it.
“I love being outside and in the sun, but my favourite part of any site is working out challenging rigging and access,” Georgia says. She believes that incorrect prejudices about physical strength beset many women from trying for a career in rope access, originally giving her pause when making the jump. “I was really skeptical going to do my Rope Access training, I didn't want the money and time to be a waste or a disappointment. But you really can't know until you try and it was 100% worth it for me."
"Many of my girlfriends and myself included tend to put huge limitations on ourselves with no apparent reason.” — Georgia Bast
In fact, Georgia believes that in some ways, women are better suited to the job. “Since I'm not particularly strong I have had to discover new ways and techniques to make the job easier, and work smarter not harder,” she says. “Also it's great being small enough to squeeze into small balconies and through tight gaps.”
However, sexism can be a common issue. “Seedy building managers that are stuck in the 50's (are a problem)”, she says. “'You're a girl' is one of their most common greetings, which is really helpful because sometimes I need a reminder,” she notes, sarcastically.
“I really believe within the Rope Techs there is an encouraging attitude toward women, we just have to jump in and give it a lash,” Georgia states. “Work your butt off because it doesn't matter if you're a hard worker 'for a woman', be just a hard worker regardless. I don't think the industry needs changing, maybe just the mindset toward it. Other tradies, Building Managers and chumps that make weird comments are the real setbacks for progression.”
“People are generally stoked to see a woman doing this job,” Jennifer says. “When I started, I expected I would encounter way more sexism than I have. I run teams of guys and never have my authority challenged, I feel respected at work, and when dealing with clients, I don’t feel underestimated. We are definitely in a time when women are being pushed to pursue whatever they want and encouraged to take on jobs in a usually male-dominated industry.”
“I’ve been lucky enough to work with companies who encourage women in this industry,” Stephanie says. “I've also been on a drop outside someone’s window, and the mother in there called her daughter over and said to her ‘see, girls can do anything’ which was so nice to hear.”