Surgery is a high‐status, distinctly embodied, profession, dominated by men and saturated with masculine ideals of individual heroism, manual skill and detachment. In this study, we focus on exploring how surgery both represses, but also requires, caring work, creating gendered contradictions for the women that enter its ranks. Based on interviews with eighteen female surgeons from Australia and New Zealand, we apply a ‘rationality of caring work’ lens to explore how they experienced these contradictions through training, socialization and in everyday interactions. Our findings show inter‐related mechanisms whereby female surgeons are required to become more independent and self‐reliant than comparable men, but also make up for the systemic lack of care shown to junior staff and students. In particular, their pregnancy and motherhood challenge the ideal of the detached, independent, heroic agent. We conclude by discussing how a ‘rationality of caring’ lens could help unpack the gendered contradictions women experience in other elite professions.