American Airlines

Woman leading American’s office in China

Maxine Peng wants to open up the world to Chinese travelers for American Airlines.

“With the rapid economic growth in China, more people are willing to try new experiences with travel and American Airlines sees this expanding opportunity,” Peng said during a recent interview in Dallas, where she was attending a global sales meeting for the airline.

Peng, 35, was hired by American less than a year ago to manage its China operations from its office in Shanghai. The Fort Worth-based carrier currently has five flights to China, including its newest routes between Dallas/Fort Worth Airport and Shanghai and Hong Kong which launched earlier this month.

After spending eight years working for British Airways’ Chinese operations, Peng made the jump to American because she was interested in working for a U.S. company. She had traveled to the U.S. before and was impressed with the “spirit of advantage” she found in Americans.

“I found the U.S. a very interesting place,” Peng said. “The people are warm and cheerful and bold and frank.”

Unlike other Asian countries, it is not unusual to see women in executive positions at companies in China, said David Mack, an assistant business dean at the University of Texas at Arlington. In UTA’s executive MBA program in China, about 40 percent of the students in each class are women, Mack said.

“Although there is still a dominance of upper-level positions by males, there is not a prejudice, per se, regarding females such as there is in other Asian cultures,” Mack said. “Part of [former Chinese leader Mao Zedong’s] cultural revolution was equality of opportunities for both genders, so this has made a difference.”

Peng, who grew up in Shanghai, said it was common to see women take significant positions in government jobs in the city or management positions in state-run companies when she was a child.

She received her degree in foreign trade and accounting from Shanghai’s Advanced Institute for Finance and worked for a U.S. trade firm. She then spent four years at DHL as a sales person before moving to British Airways to handle corporate accounts. At American, Peng is hoping to expand the airline’s presence in China, possibly applying for more flights to Beijing or other Chinese cities if the current flights perform well for American.

“This opportunity has made me grow to lead a team and achieve,” Peng said. “I’ve had to learn to motivate my team instead of just doing one job on my own.”

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In China, American has 54 employees in its Shanghai and Beijing offices. Peng lives in Shanghai but often travels to Beijing for the day to meet with workers in the Chinese capital.

During the week, she lives with her parents who take care of her 5-year-old son, Harry. Then on the weekends, she and her son stay at their house further away from the city center with her husband, Wen Jun, who is an engineering professor at a Shanghai college.

“As a woman, you are not only the manager for American Airlines or for your company but you are also the mother of your child, so you need to balance your job and your family and that is a challenge,” Peng said.

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