A Masterton woman has joined a group of education workers fighting for equal pay.
Mary Jones, a Ministry of Education communication support worker, is one of three female workers from around the country backing a claim for equal pay for women.
The claim was lodged with the Employment Relations Authority by education union New Zealand Educational Institute (NZEI) Te Riu Roa in October after a Court of Appeal decision found that women in predominantly female workforces could make a claim for pay equity under the Equal Pay Act.
For more than 11 years, Mrs Jones has worked with children with speech and language difficulties in Masterton and Carterton.
Now at the top of the wage scale, she earns $19.48 an hour, a rate available to workers after eight years' service.
An investigation commissioned by NZEI several years ago found support workers employed by the ministry were paid as much as $8 an hour less than workers in a comparable male-dominated job.
Mrs Jones said she loved her job, but learning how much less she was earning compared to those in a male-dominated industry made her feel undervalued.
"The way I see it, is because women are seen as the nurturing supportive family person - not always but often - and a lot of support workers work part-time or limited hours because they have families to look after, they aren't valued as much as someone working fulltime who has a profession, because support workers are seen as being less skilled."
The children she works with, some of whom also have behavioural issues, deserved better, she said.
"The children that we work with deserve to have people who are valued for the skills they have. We do need a lot of skills and expertise to do our jobs and we feel that the children we work with are the most important thing - because they are ultimately our future for the country.
"We need them to have the best that they can have in order to become the best adults that they can be in the future."
Communication support workers could make a "huge difference" to children's lives, Mrs Jones said.
"Some of the children when we first start working with them don't interact much with their peers or classroom, be it verbally or socially, but after working with us they gain confidence - which is the reward of our job basically, to hear teachers say the children we've been working with have participated in a discussion or put their hand up to answer a question."
NZEI national secretary Paul Goulter said research done in 2007 showed that compared to correction officers, support workers were "severely underpaid".
"The inequity of wages is growing in New Zealand, and women in 'caring' roles are bearing the brunt of this imbalance. Ministry employers should be leading the way in gender equality, not perpetuating injustice."
"More than 500 other support workers employed by the ministry provide support for young children in schools and early childhood facilities. They are on the frontline of ensuring some of our most vulnerable children achieve the best possible outcomes, and they have heavy responsibilities in difficult and demanding conditions."
NZEI is one of several unions now taking part in a working group with the Government and employers to negotiate better pay equity.
Depending on the outcome of the talks, NZEI will determine whether to continue with the Employment Relations Authority claim, Mr Goulter said.