B is for ‘bachelor,’ not progress

Monday, June 10, 2019

No question about it, diversity and gender equality are all the rage in the profession — and it’s the clients that are driving the horses, with in-house counsel expected to lead both by way of example and by way of shutting out law firms who aren’t sensitive enough to the call.

The trouble with rage, however, is that it’s full of anxiety. Sort of like the Raptors in their bad moments running all over the court, knowing not what they pursue as they lose sight of the fundamentals.

And without the fundamentals, systemic change is all uphill. So, ask yourself why virtually every applicant for an in-house legal department position — or any position, as it turns out — continues to feature the letter “B” all over his or her resumé.

The “B” is for “bachelor.” That’s fine for the men. But why is a woman applicant also a BA, B.S., B.Pharm, B.Ed, BFA or a Bwhatever?

Fortunately, LLB has been going the way of the dodo in Canada. Since 2001, most Canadian law schools (with the important exception of McGill University’s Faculty of Law) have switched to granting JDs, even offering to replace LLBs retroactively with the new designation.

Unfortunately, the profession’s motives here have hardly been pure. The evolution has had nothing whatsoever to do with the drive to gender equality; rather, it’s an outcome of the perception that the JD, the name given to basic law degrees at American universities, was somehow more prestigious, with “Doctor” — in the minds of many — outweighing “Bachelor” because of the former’s clear suggestion that it’s a postgraduate degree.

Indeed, McGill University, which continues to offer LLB and BCL degrees and has refused to adopt the JD, explains on its website that a “simple JD denomination” would not properly describe the uniqueness of its program, which offers joint degrees in common law and civil law. Rather, the website maintains, calling the degree a JD would “reduce [the program] to what it is not: a North American common law degree only.”

Fair enough, but perhaps not good enough. Because, in today’s day and age, changing the BCL/LLB denomination to BCL/JD is much more to the point. Or better still, call the “BCL” something else and join it with the “JD” designation.

At the risk of incurring Jordan Petersen’s wrath or scorn, or both, it may be instructive to point out that the etymology of “bachelor” is about as far from gender neutral as it gets. Which is a little odd, because “baccalaureate”, a word that has become virtually interchangeable with “bachelor” when referring to an academic degree, has an unstained pedigree so far as gender equality is engaged. It’s a French word that originates from the Latin “bacca” and “laureus”, which refer to the berry and laurel leaves that were given to graduates to honour their accomplishment.

The difficulty is that while both “baccalaureate” and “bachelor” are now commonly used to refer to the degree, only “bachelor” refers to the degree holder. And, etymologically, that’s a word that’s historically tainted.

The reason for that may be because “baccalaureus” is an alteration of “baccalarius,” which means a “young man aspiring to knighthood.” From this the word “bachelor” evolved about 1300 and was used to describe low-ranking knights. Needless to say, there were no female knights, low-ranking or otherwise.

When you think about it, bachelor is a term that is particularly offensive when compared to the pejorative connotations associated with “spinster,” its female equivalent. So much so that England and Wales abolished both terms for the purpose of marriage registration in 2005, substituting the word “single.”

Law schools in Canada have for the most part followed suit. But the “B” persists, because virtually everyone who goes to law school in this country must get a “B” degree before admission. What that means is that we won’t have gender equality in the academic sphere until the “B” degree gets a new name.

Until then, change will be difficult. Consider, for example, the story of Osra Lindo, recently featured in The Globe and Mail. 

Earlier this year, Lindo, a 79-year-old grandmother, got her undergraduate degree from York University. It took her four years of commuting from her Scarborough home, a two-hour trip each way.

And the degree she got?

A bachelor’s degree. In nothing less than gender, sexuality and women’s studies.

Enough said? At least the “master” in LLM and other postgraduate degrees could be regarded as a gender-neutral adjective or verb referring to someone who has acquired a great, complete or particular skill — and not just the noun, which essentially means “a man in charge.”

Bachelor, unfortunately, has no such wiggle room.

Julius Melnitzer is a freelance legal affairs journalist based in Mississauga, Ont. He can be reached at [email protected].

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